If you have never used a #taxpro before, or if you usually walk in to a tax preparation chain, or even if you are thinking about changing preparers, you need to remember that the person who prepares your tax return has access to your entire financial identity. You need to be sure the person you are using to prepare your taxes meets your needs and your expectations. Before making your final decision ask each potential preparer the following questions:
- What are your credentials? (CPA, Attorney, EA, Annual Filing Season Program Completion, etc.) Read this earlier post to find out what all those letters mean. You might also ask about professional affiliations. Is the practitioner a member of the NATP, NAEA, AICPA, etc? While membership in professional organizations does not necessarily indicate competence, it may indicate a certain level of seriousness about the profession.
- How much continuing education do you normally do each year? Each credential comes with its own requirements. Note that CPA and Attorney continuing education requirements do not necessarily have to be in tax matters while those for Enrolled Agents and the AFSP are specific to tax matters and professional ethics. In my opinion 15 hours of continuing tax education each year is the bare minimum for maintaining professional competence. As an EA, I am required to get 72 hours of continuing education every three years (so 24 hours per year on average). I usually get 50-100 hours of CPE per year.
- How long have you been preparing returns and how many returns do you prepare each year? Experience isn’t always required, but it is helpful. I was talking to someone recently who said that she had a former IRS employee interested in buying her tax practice. She said that during her first conversation with him it came up that he had never actually prepared a tax return. Depending on the complexity of your return, that could be important. The number of returns prepared per year speaks both to the preparer’s experience and to his or her availability. My personal opinion is that even with outstanding office processes and a certain amount of support staff it is difficult for any one preparer to handle more than 200 or so returns per year (at least during the ‘tax season’ proper part of the year, if a percentage are put on extension that means more can be processed). If a preparer is part of a larger office where interviews and data entry and other tasks are handled by support staff the number of returns per year could be larger (even much larger). This is a judgment area for you. How much personal interaction do you need/want with your preparer? Are you willing to pay more for more/better access (some preparers offer ‘concierge’ service for a premium)? The answer to those questions may help you to determine if your potential preparer is right for you.
- How much experience do you have with my type of return? If you have rental properties; live abroad; are clergy; are in the military; have income from multiple partnerships, trusts, etc.; or if the return is a business entity return (or any number of other highly-specialized situations) it is important that your preparer have experience with that type of return. People who routinely work in multiple states (truck drivers, pilots, flight attendants) need specialized support as do farmers, ranchers, and professional fishers. It’s OK to go with someone who has only limited experience, but you should be comfortable with their ability and willingness to research the necessary issues (which is one reason why that continuing education question is so important). For example, I recently declined a potential client because I don’t generally do returns for retail businesses (the business return side of my practice focuses more on the needs of freelance professionals and personal service providers).
- How will you protect my information? Don’t expect an extremely detailed explanation, but your preparer should have computer security policies in place (firewall, malware protection, and update schedules are the bare minimum). In addition to computer security policies, the preparer should also have policies on staff training (if applicable) and physical protection of your information (how paper files, laptop and desktop computers, and backup media are secured). Finally, you should ask about their data storage and backup plans. This post contains a few more specific questions related to computer security. Again, don’t expect specifics, just enough information to ensure that your data is reasonably protected from being damaged, lost, or stolen.
Notice that not one of these questions is “How much do you charge?” Preparer fees exist on a continuum and those competing on price alone are rarely your best option. Cost is always a concern and, as someone who also does personal finance consulting, I would be remiss if I told you to simply throw caution to the wind and to hire whomever you want. Many preparers can and will give you an estimate based on prior year’s tax returns if the current year’s return is expected to be similar. When evaluating cost consider the preparer’s credentials and continuing education (those are expensive to maintain), the office overhead (support staff and large offices are obviously more expensive to maintain than a lone preparer working out of a home office), and level of service provided (can they represent you, are they in the office all year, etc.). As with all financial decisions trade-offs exist. Find the preparer that best meets all of your needs and realize that may not be the lowest cost option. Of course it is important to remember that higher price is not a guarantee of quality service. Choose wisely, choose well.