As a CPA who used to actually prepare taxes for other people, many are often surprised to learn that I no longer even prepare my own income taxes. The first year my husband and I were married, I spent the better part of a spring Saturday inputting all of our stuff into online software and resolved after that to outsource that task to a real pro going forward. When I was single and had just a W-2, student loan interest and a deposit to my IRA, my taxes were simple and it took me less than an hour to get them filed. But our taxes are much more extensive these days.
My husband is an independent contractor so he’s considered self-employed. We make several trips to Goodwill each year to drop stuff off, which requires an entry for each and every trip, and I have income from my moonlight gig as a fitness instructor and writing the “Weekly Savings Tip” for Feed the Pig. Not to mention that my husband has a brokerage account where he likes to play the market a little bit (with money we can afford to lose), which some years means a dozen or more entries for capital gains and losses. If time is money, then the money we pay our accountant to prepare and file our taxes is money well spent. If you’re in the same boat or find yourself with a new tax complexity that isn’t as easily handled by the tax software available to “common folk,” here are some best practices for finding the best person to help you:
Decide if you want a tax preparer, an EA or a CPA.
What’s the difference? I bet you didn’t know that pretty much anyone can call themselves a tax preparer, although the IRS has started to regulate that by requiring people who accept payment for preparing taxes to have a PTIN (paid preparer tax identification number).
An EA (enrolled agent) is someone who has passed the IRS’s test for tax preparation and is allowed to represent taxpayers in front of the IRS. Most EAs are going to be pretty well-versed in the more common tax issues like what you can deduct, self-employment income and what credits you might qualify for.
A CPA (certified public accountant) is someone who has a degree, studied accounting, and passed the Uniform CPA exam, which is no joke. Just because someone is a CPA doesn’t mean they do taxes, but if a tax person is a CPA, you can bet that they have a decent depth of knowledge. If they are a CPA/PFS (like me!) then they have also passed an additional test demonstrating deep knowledge of personal finance issues like retirement planning, budgeting and investing.
If your situation is pretty simple, but you just don’t want to spend the time on preparation, then you may be satisfied with a tax preparer through one of the large chains like H&R Block or Jackson Hewitt. Just know that since these companies guarantee accuracy and your lowest taxable income, they’re likely to go a little overboard in requiring you to document things that ultimately may not matter, like casualty losses and medical expenses (which must exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income to count).
If you have a little more complexity like self-employment income, income in multiple states or rental properties, then you may want to look at either an EA or a CPA. The biggest difference here is probably going to be cost, although not always.
How to find an EA or CPA to help with your taxes.
CPA: Look to your state’s society of CPAs by searching “Illinois (or whatever state you live in) CPA society.” That’s the best way to find a database of those in your area since CPAs are registered through their state rather than nationally.
When performing your search, make sure you limit results to specialties that apply to you. If the database has a category for “individuals,” always check that and then also look for other complexities you may have such as multi-state or small business. Your search is likely to turn up multiple results, so you’ll want to filter out anyone who works for a large firm because they’re less likely to actually work with “everyday” people and instead specialize in very wealthy individuals.
I tend to look for people who work in a small office or even on their own. They’re more likely to want to work with everyday people at an affordable rate. After that, it may come down to convenience. Whose office is easiest for you to get to in order to drop information off, sign documents or stop by mid-year for a tax planning session?
This brings me to another criteria. Do you want someone to just prepare and file your taxes or do you want someone to help you save money on taxes going forward? Our accountant is a straight-up tax preparer, at least for us. If you’re looking for more guidance on saving money going forward, then you’ll want to ask a potential preparer if they do tax planning and you may want to look for the CPA/PFS credential.
The sad fact is that there aren’t a lot of CPAs out there that actually want to do income taxes for regular families who just have jobs, kids, a house and a few charitable donations. The easiest way to find one that does is to just pick up the phone and start asking, “Do you accept individual tax clients and what is your minimum fee?” If the minimum is more than $500, I’d say move on.
Kelley Long is a resident financial planner with Financial Finesse, the leading provider of unbiased workplace financial wellness programs in the US. For more posts by Kelley or to sign up to have her weekly post delivered to your inbox each Wednesday, please visit the main blog page and sign up today.