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.
Acronyms AboundThere 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 DifficultyNext, 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.
But keep in mind that the preparers at these places, while very capable, don't have to be EAs or CPAs. They're trained in-house and probably went through an extensive training program, but that's it. So if your return is straightforward, these places are perfect for you. Expect to pay anywhere from $150 to $450 per return. Just beware of the instant-refund pitch, says Winters. "That's where they make their money." The interest on that loan will eat up most of your refund. As long as your return was electronically filed, you'll get your money in two weeks. Show some restraint and walk away. If your return is more complex and you want to find yourself a full-blown CPA, get some referrals. Word of mouth is always your best bet. Ask your friends and colleagues if they like their tax accountants. How long have they been with them? And how quickly do they return phone calls? Gather some names and start to interview. Ask questions. If you have a small business, make sure the CPA has experience with your issues. If you've exercised incentive stock options this year, be sure to discuss that during your interview process. Remember, just because a person is a CPA doesn't mean he knows taxes. Many CPAs are fabulous full-time auditors and have never even picked up a tax return. So be sure to ask. Most importantly, you have to be comfortable with your accountant. Your preparer will, in some situations, know more about your financial situation than even your spouse, so there is a big trust factor involved. If you go with a one-person shop, expect to pay around $250 for basic federal and state returns, says Winters. But remember, you're relying on one person to know all the answers.
A larger firm has many more resources available for you if you have intricate issues. So if you exercised extensive stock options or are involved in complicated tax shelters, you probably need to go with a big firm like Ernst & Young or PricewaterhouseCoopers, says Winters. Of course, the larger the firm, the larger the bill. Most firms charge either by the hour or by the schedule. If the firm charges hourly and you bring in a shoebox full of tax documents, be prepared for a hefty fee. If the firm charges by the schedule, then each form has a price tag. For instance, preparing only a Form 1040 might cost, say, $100, and each additional schedule will be another $75. So if you have Schedule A - Itemized Deductions and Schedule D - Capital Gains and Losses too, tack on another $150. So get moving and pick a preparer. And regardless of your decision, be open about your situation so that you ensure yourself a relatively accurate quote and a pleasurable experience.
award-winning tax preparation programs . Some of you have had great experiences -- others not so good. But we're glad you took a moment to let us know, so here are a few of your reactions. Lots Of Love for TurboTax: Stephen Johnson has been using TurboTax software since 1992 and this year decided to try TurboTax online. John Pawlicki is also a fan of TurboTax Deluxe. "For an average taxpayer, with numerous stock transactions, TurboTax Deluxe is great, since it imports my Fidelity Investments data and our payroll records, far simplifying my data input. I recommend TurboTax for anyone and everyone!" Pete Brennan says, "The help and information that TurboTax provides in preparing the tax return is essentially the same as sitting down with a real-live tax expert." Carl A. says, "The free benefits -- i.e. audit support, etc., associated with the H&R Block software, makes it very appealing, but I have actually tried BOTH TaxCut and TurboTax in the same year and TurboTax still seems far ahead ... I am certainly voting for TurboTax." A Vote for Freetaxusa.com: "Just wanted to let you know that I did my taxes, both federal and state, in under an hour ... using freetaxusa.com," says Joe Piluso. "And, because my AGI came in under $50,000, I only had to pay the $9.95 for the state return. This program was fast, easy to use, and had excellent help and support available at no extra charge. I highly recommend it."