After the confetti has been swept up on New Year's Day, another festival requiring reams and reams of paper begins. That's right, it's tax time. As you're gathering your pay stubs and receipts in preparation for your annual headache, it might be worth considering whether you need professional help this year. A few things have changed.
First, the IRS is losing funding. If you were counting on getting help with the forms from the IRS, you might be in for record wait times. The IRS budget has fallen by 10% in the last five years, while costs have increased. Staff reductions of around 8% have mostly affected customer service and fraud protection, while training budgets have been cut down to almost nothing. Even if you do get through, the person you're talking to will be less likely to help you. One taxpayer watchdog group claims 47% of calls going to the IRS this year won't get answered. Those who do will have to wait an average of 34 minutes to talk to a human.
The IRS maintains a "priority" line for tax professionals, which is the first reason you should consider hiring one. While the wait times there will be just as long, it won't be you who has to do the waiting.
Second, this will be the first year the IRS has had to implement the tax credits and penalties of the Affordable Care Act. There will also be new rules for foreign taxpayers thanks to the Foreign Account Compliance Act. This will be the most complicated tax return many consumers have ever filed, according to Charles McCabe, president of Peoples Tax Income.
Third, the IRS will have less ability to enforce and investigate tax returns. This means you can be a little bolder in claiming a deduction or credit you might be entitled to, but it also means you need to streamline your return for easy processing. A tax professional will be able to help you accomplish both those goals.
The problem, though, is that tax returns have become an increasingly common target for fraud. Criminals file bogus returns on behalf of identity theft victims. Unscrupulous tax preparers may also file negligent returns designed to get big refunds deposited into their own accounts. This can leave you robbed of your return and facing serious IRS penalties.
When you choose a professional, you need to be sure you're getting someone who will keep your best interests at heart. You need to do your homework and only entrust your financial information to a certified professional.
Here are three steps to help you find one.
1.) Do it by the numbers
For the first time, the IRS doesn't have the authority to regulate tax preparers. In 2014, all professional preparers were required to obtain a PTIN (preparer tax identification number) which meant they were regulated. A recent federal court decision, though, ruled that the program overstepped the IRS's authority.
The IRS Return Preparer's Office came out with a compromise program. While preparers are no longer required to have PTINs, those who are serious about being transparent can complete a voluntary continuing education program to receive one. If you're going to sit down with someone and reveal all your financial secrets, make sure they've gone through the program.
2.) Get references
In the same way you'd ask your friends to refer you to a hair stylist or a contractor, you should ask around to see who uses a tax preparer. Hiring help with tax returns is done by 60% of Americans; so the odds are good you know someone who does. If all of your friends file their own taxes, consider asking the owner of a local business you frequent. Small business tax preparation is incredibly complicated, but a good preparer can save a small business owner good money. They may be willing to refer you to their preparer.
You can work backward, too. Before you sit down with a preparer, ask him or her for the names of happy clients. If you don't get any, think twice. Tax professionals work on the same reputation-based advertising that drives other service professionals. Someone who's not willing to talk about success stories may not have any.
3.) Go big
If all else fails, you can know you won't get ripped off going to a big corporate preparer. H&R Block and others like them have been around forever and they don't stay in business by robbing customers. Their size and stability can provide some safety.
That size, though, can also create problems for them. Their training programs are not as rigorous as the education that independent preparers usually have been through. They also tend not to retain employees for very long, leading to a lot of inexperienced preparers. Be sure you ask critical questions about the moves they're making.
4.) Self-Directed Tax Preparation
If you are fairly confident in your ability to produce the taxes on your own, you may find a self-directed program like TurboTax online to be of benefit. This online program asks easy to follow questions and guides you every step of the way. You can even request the help of a professional to review it if you choose to do so. Destinations Credit Union members can get a discount when using TurboTax online.