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What To Look For In Choosing Tax Help

We all would like to find the best help possible when need it. Certainly you will want to find someone who knows how to handle your problems? But how do you do that? Just as most of us are incapable of evaluating our medical doctors knowledge of how to diagnos and treat a condition, it is also difficult to measure the competency of a tax professional.

One thing we can do is to check for their credentials, but that doesn't always tell the whole story. Besides, it may not matter how knowledgeable the person is -- every one of us makes mistakes.

So just like in choosing a medical doctor, you need to find someone you are comfortable with. The primary issue here is communication - does the person communicate with you in a way that you understand? Are you able to communicate your concerns or issues in a way that they understand what you need? All the expertise in the world will not help if you are not connected on the same issue.

There are a few things you can look for, and most of these relate to the tax professional's attention to details. How organized do they seem? Do they return your phone calls or email promptly? Are they easy to get ahold of? (Your standard on these last two items should vary by the time of year. During the tax season you can expect very prompt responses. Off season most offices have reduced hours and it could be a few days to a week or so.) Do they seem to make little mistakes? Can they explain your return to you (in a way that you can understand)?

Another consideration is what organizations does the preparer belong to? Many of these have additional education standards and hold their members to a code of ethics. If nothing else, membership in these organizations demonstrates that the preparer is at least conscientious about the service that they provide. Realize, however, that not belonging to one of these associations does not suggest a lack of competence, nor does it mean that the preparer is not conscientious - it is only a lack of an indication either way.

One critical thing that you should watch for is in the signature section of your return. By law, anyone you pay for preparing your return must sign your return in the preparer's signature location. They must also include their own identifying number. (This may be their social security number, but a true professional will use a Preparer's Tax Identification Number or PTIN.) If you see information in this section such as "Self-prepared" then you should not accept the return, do not pay any fees, and you might consider contacting a government authority (either the IRS and/or in California contact the California Tax Education Council).

The IRS has an article on Choosing a Tax Return Preparer that is worth reading.

Finally, here are some questions to ask (and specify individual, trust, partnership, corporate, etc.):

  • Were you required to demonstrate compentence in [specify] area of tax law in order to get your license?
  • Are you required to obtain a minimum amount of continuing education hours specifically in taxation each year in order to maintain your license?
  • Do you belong to a professional organization that requires that you annually obtain a minimum number of continuing education hours specifically in taxation to keep your membership?
  • Do you take continuing education each year specifically in tax law related to [specify]?

"Tax software is no substitute for tax knowledge."

Any views expressed herein are based on our best information. The content of this web site was written as general information without specific individual information and thus may not apply in all situations. This material was not written, and cannot be used by the taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer.

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Janelle Ogg, EA
Richard Ogg, EA