If you pay someone to prepare your tax return, the IRS urges you to choose that preparer wisely. Taxpayers are legally responsible for what's on their tax return even if it is prepared by someone else. Currently, New York State has no licensing laws for tax preparers; anyone can "hang out a shingle" and set up shop as a tax-preparer. Most return-preparers are professional and honest and provide excellent service to their clients. Here are a few points to keep in mind when choosing someone.
- Referrals. Ask everyone you can think of: family, friends, co-workers, business owners and financial advisers. It helps to ask someone who has a similar income-tax situation.
- Check the preparer's qualifications. Ask if the preparer is affiliated with a professional organization that provides its members with continuing education and holds them to a code of ethics. Every year, tax attorneys, CPAs and IRS-enrolled agents (EAs), are mandated to complete continuing-education credits on the new income tax laws. Only these professionals can represent taxpayers before the IRS in all tax matters. Attorneys and CPAs are licensed by state agencies, while EAs are regulated by the Federal government.
- Check on the preparer's history. Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if the preparer has a questionable history and check for any disciplinary actions and licensure status through the state boards of accountancy for certified public accountants, the state bar associations for attorneys, and the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility for enrolled agents.
- Find out about their fees. Prices for tax preparation will vary depending on how complex your tax return is. Some professionals charge by the hour or by the number of forms to be completed, or even a flat fee for all work. Run, don't walk, away from preparers who base their fees on a percentage of your refund.
- Accessible. Will your tax-preparer be there for you in July when you get a letter from the IRS? If you're not sure, you'd better look for another one. A reputable tax professional will be readily available year-round to provide assistance.
- Provide all records. Most reputable preparers will request to see your records and receipts and will ask you multiple questions to determine your tax situation. If handling a complex tax situation, you should find a tax accountant who specializes in your situation.
- Never sign a blank return. Avoid tax-preparers that ask you to sign a blank tax form.
- Review the return before signing. Before you sign your tax return, review it and ask questions. Make sure you understand everything and are comfortable with the accuracy of the return before you sign it. The preparer must give you a copy of the return.
- Preparer signature and PTIN. All paid preparers must sign the return and include their Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) as required by law. But the taxpayer is responsible for the accuracy of every item on the return.
Barry Lisak is an IRS Enrolled Agent, meaning that he has passed special U.S. Treasury Department exams that qualify him to represent clients dealing with audits or tax-resolution cases. Any questions can be directed to him at (516) TAX-SAVE, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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