In case you haven't heard, the tax filing deadline this year is April 17, which means you have just over two months to get your return over to the IRS. It also means that if you're planning to hire a tax preparer, you'll need to get moving before all the good ones book up. With that in mind, here are a few tips for finding the right professional -- and knowing which ones to avoid.
1. Decide if you even need outside help
Before you embark on a search for the right tax preparer, take some time to think about whether you really need the additional help. Some folks -- namely, those with many deductions and multiple sources of income -- are more than justified in spending the money, but if your return is fairly uncomplicated, chances are, you can complete it yourself.
Here's a good way to be sure: Do a trial run well in advance of the deadline, and see if you encounter any issues, such as a line item you don't know how to complete. If you get tripped up, you may want to spring for a tax preparer rather than risk a mistake. But if filing your return is a simple matter of copying a couple of numbers and calling it a day (which could be the case if you're a salaried worker with no other income and no itemized deductions), then there's really no sense in throwing your money away.
2. Find the most suitable fee structure
Though some tax professionals charge a flat fee for their services, others charge based on the number of hours they spend on your return. If your taxes are fairly simple, you'll have an easier time determining accurately how many hours you're likely to rack up. But if your return is complicated, that number will be more difficult to nail down.
Still, it could be the case that you'll pay more with a flat rate than an hourly one. Let's say you're looking at two professionals, one of whom charges $300 for all returns and one who charges $100 an hour. If your return only takes two hours, your fee will be lower under the second arrangement. On the other hand, if you go with the first preparer, you won't have to worry about how much money you'll ultimately be in for.
There are also professionals who calculate their fees as a percentage of your refund. These are the ones you'll typically want to avoid for two reasons -- first, because they might act unscrupulously in an attempt to get a higher fee, and second, because you could end up paying more than you would under a flat- or hourly-rate structure if your refund is high.
3. Avoid anyone who promises you a refund
In your search for a tax professional, you may come across some folks who will try to lure you in with the promise of money back on your return. Don't fall for that trap. Without running the numbers and reviewing your tax documents, there's no way to know whether you'll wind up with a refund or not, so any professional who guarantees that you'll get one is the type you should avoid at all costs. In a best-care scenario, that sort of promise is a glaring example of false advertising. And in a worst-case scenario, it's an indication that that person might be willing to fudge numbers or blatantly lie on your return to deliver on that claim. Either way, consider it a no-go.
4. Choose a professional who offers audit support
The chances of your tax return getting audited are fairly slim, given that less than 1% of all returns require further IRS scrutiny. But if you happen to land on that dreaded audit list, you may need some help defending your return or addressing whatever concerns the IRS has about it. That's why it's important to find a tax professional who's willing to stand behind his or her work and offer audit support should you come to need it. Contrary to what you may have heard, hiring a tax pro doesn't get you off the hook if you underreport income and wind up subject to penalties and fees, so at the very least, aim to find someone who will be there for you if your return gets flagged.
It pays to invest a little time into finding the right tax preparer, because once you identify a good fit, you'll ideally be able to use that person year after year. But don't wait: Tax season is now in full swing, and the more you delay, the more you'll limit your options.