So you decided to throw in the towel and hire an accountant. I understand. This stuff gets complicated, and between the upcoming baseball season and spring shopping, who really wants to spend a weekend inside preparing a tax return? First, let me say that I really think you should take a stab at it, because preparing your tax return can teach you so much about your financial life. But if it's just too complicated, I applaud you for admitting defeat and getting help. So you need to find a tax preparer -- and you need to do it fast. Don't think you can show up on April 13 and expect a preparer to finish your return on time.
There are plenty of people out there this time of year vying for your business, so do your due diligence. First, understand the acronyms. An enrolled agent, or EA, is a tax professional licensed by the IRS. Uncle Sam does background checks on all EAs once they pass a big IRS tax test. If you just want your taxes prepared, these folks will get the job done. A certified public accountant, or CPA, has an accounting degree, passed a rigorous exam and worked under another CPA for a few years before becoming licensed. If you have a complicated situation or are looking for a long-term tax plan, you probably should consider a CPA.
Determine the Difficulty
Next, try to estimate the complexity of your return, says Maryann Winters, chairman of the tax oversight committee of the New York Society of CPAs and a partner at Circhia & Cuomo in Syracuse, N.Y. If you have, let's say, W-2 wages, some interest from savings accounts and a capital gain from a mutual fund sale, a tax preparer from H&R Block ( HRB) or Jackson Hewitt ( JTX) will get the job done. These days, their offices are everywhere -- from strip malls to kiosks in your local malls. You can pop in to get your return done while you're checking out the latest spring fashions.