Is It Time for an Accountant?

We Fools tend to believe that going it alone is best when it comes to matters of finance and investing. Why shouldn't we? Most mutual funds overcharge investors to underperform the market, and full-service brokers do best when they trade your portfolio into oblivion.

Against that backdrop, I'm hardly surprised that 63% of those polled over the weekend at our Credit Cards and Consumer Debt discussion board say that they don't use an accountant and don't plan to, either.

Is that really the best move?
Instead, they're using software such as Intuit's TurboTax and H&R Block's TaxCut, since both are designed to spot tax deductions.

Besides, even if you use an accountant, you'll still face a mountain of paperwork, argues poster Crosenfield: "YOU have to provide the accountant with all the numbers. The TurboTax interview takes you through all the numbers anyway."

Others, like Fool community member JustGeorge, say that they have relatively simple tax situations and that software is all they need. But a vocal minority -- that is, 27% of those polled -- say they either have an accountant now or are shopping for one.

Why? Expertise, says community member RkeFool, who turned to a professional for step-by-step assistance with establishing a business. "Could I have done all these things without him? Sure, but it would probably have taken me twice as long, and cost me twice as much."

When it's time to look for an accountant
Roy Lewis, our resident tax expert and known in these parts as TMFTaxes, agrees. "Don't think less of yourself because you use a professional. I called a mechanic friend in the other day to change the battery in one of my cars. Sound silly? Not really. He has the knowledge, expertise, and tools to get the job done quickly. I'm not mechanically inclined by nature. So, it cost me a few bucks. It was well worth it to know that I could turn on my car without the opening scene from Casino flashing in my mind."

But when should you seek help? Roy -- being what's called an Enrolled Agent, which makes him qualified to give tax advice on, well, everything -- sent me a long list of situations where hiring outside help makes sense. I've condensed it into three categories:

1. Business planning. Businesses have multiple taxes to deal with. Most often there are payroll and business taxes. Retailers, meanwhile, will have sales and use taxes. And if you incorporate, you may have to prepare financial reports to cover it all.

2. Real estate. Want to be like Trump? Prepare for paperwork. There are numerous ways to structure real estate transactions, and exactly all of them will affect how much tax you pay.

3. Life changes. Whether you're getting married, divorced, or having a child, once-untouched sections of the tax code now apply to you. (Not coincidentally, some of those participating in our poll who wrote in favor of hiring an accountant mentioned marriage or divorce as key to their decision to get help.)

Follow the money
Still, if you seek a pro, Roy says it pays to be cautious: "Remember that tax preparation is virtually unregulated. The homeless guy down the street can put up a 'Tax Preparation' sign and, as the laws are currently written, begin to prepare taxes and e-file. Just grab a cheap tax preparation program and off you go. It's sad, but true. So if you DO need help, I would highly recommend a Certified Public Accountant or Enrolled Agent."

The online CPAdirectory seems to be a good place to start your search. Other sources include state CPA associations. Locators for Arizona, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania are available online now.

Interested in more tax tips? Consider The Motley Fool Green Light newsletter service. Therein, co-advisors Dayana Yochim and Shannon Zimmerman show you how to unlock the hidden fortune inside your paycheck. For example, Dayana uncovered $438 worth of deductions in the August issue. Click here to get the details and 30 days of free access to the service. There's no obligation to subscribe.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers, ranked 1,586 out of more than 20,100 in Motley Fool CAPS, didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article at the time of publication. Get a peek at everything he's invested in by checking Tim's Fool profile. Intuit is a former Inside Value selection. You can bank on The Motley Fool's disclosure policy.

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