When you’re looking for a talented and skillful tax professional, the one absolute requirement is to select someone who is well versed in tax law. Not requiring this could cost you in lost cash flow and additional stress. Remember, when you pay someone to prepare your tax return, you are legally and financially responsible for everything on that tax return, not the tax preparer. If you’re not clear on that, review your tax return and look on page two, next to where you sign your name which reads: “Under penalties of perjury, I declare that I have examined this return, and accompanying schedules and statements, and to the best of my knowledge and belief they are true, correct and complete.”
If you have a complex return that involves gray areas and debatable judgment calls that are based on extensive tax experience, using an online software program will most likely cost you more in taxes by way of missed deductions and lost strategic tax planning opportunities. Therefore, it’s important for you to find a “qualified” tax professional to help prepare your tax return. Unqualified tax preparers may fail to notice legitimate deductions, credits, lost tax planning opportunities and may also make mistakes that cause you to incur additional taxes, penalties, and interest.
Unfortunately, tax law is complicated, pervasive, and intertwined. Each year Congress changes many of these tax laws (e.g., the 2017 new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act), and few laypersons can realistically hope or even want to keep up with the complexity of these changes. Your tax return may involve a series of detailed expert steps to properly complete the return, making it obvious that you need hire a tax professional, or may appear to be simple, such that you file the return yourself with no outside assistance. If you are correct that this is a simple return, you may want to still consider using a “qualified” tax professional to prepare your return as this may substantially reduce your chance of being audited. In a Harvard research study, it was documented that IRS personnel were more likely to audit a self-prepared tax return than one signed by a respected tax professional (e.g., Tax Attorney, Tax CPA, Attorney, CPA, etc.). If your tax professional knows his business, both low audit risk and high tax savings will go hand in hand.
Choosing a tax professional should be no different from choosing a doctor, but there is no fail-proof way to ensure expertise up front, no matter how careful you are. Focus on criteria you can easily obtain from your tax preparer: Education and Experience. For those who argue that you don’t need a college professor to tutor a fifth-grader, I see this differently. It is better to compare a IRS tax problem to cancer; one may ruin your business and the other shorten your life. The IRS problem and cancer only get worse when left alone. If you have cancer, you hire a highly qualified doctor with the best credentials possible and like-wise you should hire a highly qualified tax professional with the best education and professional credentials to prepare your tax return. In addition to education, look for a professional with at least ten years of tax experience to ensure that your preparer has dealt with a variety of tax and economic situations.
Don’t confuse comfort with skill. Someone whom you’ve already selected and whom you feel comfortable with may be incorrectly perceived by you as a valuable asset. Depending on their tax expertise, this preparer may save you money that is well spent expanding your business, and/or taking care of your family. However, a trusted preparer is not a qualification. Thinking this way is a financial mistake. This qualification “trust” should be a given in any true professional, whether this is a Doctor or Tax Professional. The question you need to ask yourself is “Do I know if my tax professional is maximizing my tax savings?”
Anyone can print up a business card proclaiming to be a tax expert. Until the IRS or better yet another tax professional carefully reviews your previously filed tax returns, you have no idea if your tax preparer knew what he was doing. That issue can be a serious problem for your finances. Following are some of the reasons I have heard from clients, for choosing their initial tax preparer: “They were located close to me.”; “He was a friend of the family.”; “My friends told me to use this tax preparer.”; “My Dad used this CPA so I decided to try her services.”; “Drove past his practice and saw his sign and decided to hire him.”; “Doesn’t everyone use H&R Block?”; “I checked the classified ads and found a CPA.”; “I found the billing rate very reasonable so I hired her”; “Asked my banker for recommendations and found this CPA to take care of my taxes.”; “Found my tax preparer in a trade journal.”; “My employer recommended this tax preparer.”; “Our company’s tax department recommended this preparer.”; “Contacted the Association of CPAs in my state for a list of members in my area and found a tax preparer”, etc.
The important point here, is most of these people then stopped their search. They were done. They had their tax preparer. Stopping your search at this point is a huge mistake. You should always check the background and qualifications of the tax preparer before hiring him. Research his or her background just as I hope you would a Doctor. Then interview him or her, either over the telephone or at their office. Before you hire a person to prepare your taxes, be certain that they have the skills you are searching for and can provide the tax services you require at a price you can afford.
The bottom line is do your research before hiring any tax professional. Don’t trust your financial future to someone who isn’t the best candidate for the job. Do your homework. Finding a qualified tax professional will likely translate into significant additional cash for your family and/or your business. So how do you select a tax professional?
One last comment before we discuss types of tax professionals. For many people, a program like the IRS FreeFile may seem to be more than enough. For example, some individuals whose only income is wages, who are unmarried, and who have no children or other dependents may be well served by a simple tax return preparation software. However, individuals with more complicated situations do need a professional tax return preparer, anyone who says otherwise has not been in the business of preparing tax returns. They oversimplify the facts and assume wrongly that hidden yet legal deductions do not exist for these taxpayers.
Today, more than any time in the past you need a tax professional to prepare any complicated tax return.
Remember preparation of tax returns is an exception to the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of freedom from self-incrimination. Disclosures and elections made on tax returns can result in either civil or criminal penalties, yet millions of Americans each year turn to non-qualified tax professionals to help them wade through the complexity of the tax forms, that if nothing else, require years of skill and judgment in this complicated area of law. Don’t make this mistake.
and this is a very important and valuable lesson for you to understand. Tax professionals can be Attorneys, Certified Public Accountants (CPA), Enrolled Agents (EA) or a non-licensed tax professional. The most obvious caveat in choosing a licensed or non-licensed tax preparer is their initial education, experience and continuing education. You want a professional who is an expert in taxation. The more this person knows about taxes, the more they can save you in taxes. In my opinion, a Lawyer with a Tax “Masters of Law” (LLM) or a CPA with a “Masters in Taxation” (designated as either a “Masters in Business Taxation” (MBT) or “Masters in Science Taxation” (MST)) is your best bet. A Tax LLM is an internationally recognized postgraduate law degree. It is obtained by an attorney completing a full-time tax program after finishing law school. A MBT or MST is obtained by completing a series of ten very complex tax classes in a full-time tax graduate program after completing a five-year university “accounting” degree. At times these complex and challenging post graduate tax programs include the same material for both Lawyers and CPA’s.Your MBT or MST tax instructor may also be teaching attorneys in a Tax LLM program using similar material for both programs or you may even have attorneys completing an MBT tax program. Education criteria is the best guarantee to your paying as little in taxes as possible. With a highly educated tax professional you will not need to worry about whether your tax professional is minimizing your taxes as this should be predisposed given their extensive tax education. With a non-licensed tax professional or CPA without a MBT or MST designation or an Enrolled Agent, you are “rolling the dice.” Why gamble with your financial future? Before discussing the types of tax professionals, there are at times exceptions to these rules, as some CPAs and EAs may know more about taxes than an attorney with a LLM or a CPA with a masters in tax degree, though these exceptions are not common and are due to extensive experience and self-taught education. Think it through as to why this exception to the general rule is not very common. Why didn’t your CPA or EA pursue a higher education certification? The MST certification ensures that they have the best tax education possible to help their clients minimize their taxes. Is a Masters in Tax degree too expensive? No. If your tax preparer tells you they don’t have any free time to take this course, understand that this is just an excuse for them to be cheap or lazy or both. They should spend the time necessary to sharpen their skills to better help their clients.
When people tell me they are looking for a skilled professional accountant, what they mean is they are looking for an accountant who has obtained a “Certified Public Accountant” (CPA) license. CPAs are highly skilled in accounting and audit. A CPA is the statutory title of qualified accountants in the U.S. that have passed the Uniform Certified Public Accountant examination. They must also meet any additional state specific education and experience requirements for CPA certification. Many states require a bachelor’s degree, two years of public accounting experience and a passing score, on a rigorous and difficult two-day exam, to obtain a CPA license.
The Uniform CPA exam consists of four sections: Auditing and Attestation; Business Environment and Concepts; Financial Accounting & Reporting; and Regulation (which covers taxation, ethics in tax practice, professional and legal responsibilities, and business law). The exam is not focused on taxation; therefore, the CPA title, while important, does not at all guarantee competence in tax areas. CPAs are accountants who have received a license from a state that allows them to perform audits of financial statements of governmental entities, non-profit organizations, and business enterprises, in effect certifying that the financial documents of these entities are accurate. CPA’s are more experienced in maintaining and understanding a business and its financial records.
A CPA is required to meet certain standards of state licensing, including ethics and educational requirements, and this should assure clients that the CPA is both honest and professional. CPAs are also subject to disciplinary action if they violate certain ethical rules. The distinguished “American Institute of CPA” (AICPA), a national trade association of CPA, has promulgated a Code of Professional Conduct. This code is comprised of Principles that are broad aspirational guides for conduct and rules that are specific and mandatory. The rules prescribe minimum levels of conduct below which a CPA may not fall without risking disciplinary action, including loss of membership in the AICPA. The rules, drafted in broad general terms, require, inter alia, integrity, objectivity, professional competence, the exercise of due care, and adequate planning and supervision in the performance of professional services (See AICPA Code of Professional Conduct). Moreover, the rules prohibit acts discreditable to the profession (Rule 501) and provide restrictions on the use of contingent fee arrangements (Rule 302), advertising and solicitation (Rule 502), and commissions and referral fees (Rule 503). Hence, CPAs must carry themselves ethically at all times. The advantage to you, as a client, is the CPA must comport themselves with professionalism and attention to details.
When you are looking for a “qualified” tax professional you start by looking for a CPA, however this CPA should have a MST or MBT post graduate tax degree. This is how I define a “Tax CPA”. That is, a Tax CPA is a CPA with a masters in tax degree. Tax CPA’s are your best bet for most tax returns and specially for complex business tax returns. Business owners, and those who are looking for a tax professional who can help them discover tax saving strategies, should use a Tax CPA. A CPA can provide financial and tax planning services to the same clients for whom they are preparing their tax returns. The CPA license allows a practicing CPA to perform services that is “only” reserved for a CPA. Such services can’t be performed by an attorney, EA, CFP, or just any accountant. These include attestation and assurance services, which relate to the proper preparation of financial statements. A Tax CPA is also subject to a variety of standards specific to his tax practice. The AICPA has issued Statements on Responsibility in Tax Practice. These Statements establish standards for tax practice and define the responsibility of the Tax CPA to the client, the public, and the government. The Standards provide guidance on a broad range of issues including the taking of tax return positions, departure from administrative rulings or court decisions, knowledge of errors, and the provision of tax advice.
Therefore, the first step in finding a qualified CPA to prepare your taxes is make sure s/he has a post university graduate “MST” or “MBT” taxation degree. Also check with the State Board of Accountancy to make sure that the CPA is licensed and has not been subjected to any disciplinary actions. I would not recommend any CPA without their having a Masters in Tax degree unless I knew them personally, as it doesn’t make financial sense. When I review a client’s prior year tax returns prepared by a CPA without a MST or MBT, I frequently find errors. However, I rarely find errors in tax returns prepared by attorneys with Tax LLM’s or CPAs with MBT or MST post graduate degrees.
It is important to understand that tax law is very different than other areas of law. Though it is similar to other law in that it is subject to the same interpretive, analytical, and reasoning processes lawyers use in other areas of the law. It is distinguishable from other areas of law because its subject matter makes attempts to segregate accounting and legal issues unworkable. A Tax CPAs skill are invaluable for any business owner looking for someone who can fully understand their business and the law, which makes a Tax CPA your best bet for any business return. Interestingly many attorneys and judges go to Tax CPAs for business tax advice.
A Tax CPA is also your best choice when you need to compile financial information required for a business tax audit. That is, only a Tax CPA has the unique accounting knowledge and tax experience to represent you effectively in this area before the IRS. A Tax CPA can represent you in all matters before the IRS through and including the Appeals process excluding Court representation even if they didn’t prepare your original tax return (See Sperry v. State of Florida 373 U.S. 379 (Supreme Ct. 1963) involving practice before Patent office but widely viewed as allowing Tax CPAs to practice before the IRS, though some lawyers disagree with this conclusion).
In addition to the Supreme Court allowing Tax CPAs to practice before the IRS, Section 500(c) of title 5 of the U.S. Code sets forth general rules for practicing before a U.S. administrative agency. This section provides that an individual who is duly qualified to practice as a CPA in a State may represent a person before the IRS by filing a written declaration that he is currently qualified as provided by this section and is authorized to represent the particular person in whose behalf he acts. H.R. Rep. No. 1141, 89 Cong. Cong., 1st Sess (Oct. 25, 1965) explains why CPAs are not subject to the Service’s admission procedures, stating “There is a presumption that members in good standing of the profession of …certified public accountancy are of good moral character, and that surveillance by…State associations of CPAs will sufficiently insure the integrity of practice by such persons before the IRS. The cumbersome admission procedures of the IRS seem unwarranted in their impact on duly qualified … CPAs”. Research the skills and background of your CPA in order to determine if they have a Masters in Tax degree.
The only other exception was the attorney-client privilege though this rule was recently changed by new law (IRC Section 7525) enacted in 1998. Section 7525 specifically states “with respect to tax advice, the same common law protections of confidentiality which apply to a communication between a taxpayer and an attorney shall also apply to a communication between a taxpayer and any federally authorized tax practitioner to the extent the communication would be considered a privileged communication if it were between a taxpayer and an attorney”. By incorporating “the same common law protections of confidentiality” that apply to communications between taxpayers and attorneys, this law incorporates the myriad of judicial opinions that have shaped the federal attorney-client privilege which should reassure clients as to this Tax CPA-client privilege. One further comment, this privilege applies only to “tax advice” related to federal tax matters and applies only to noncriminal tax matters before the I.R.S. or in federal court, unlike the attorney-client privilege which is not limited by subject matter or type of proceeding. The types of communication that is protected under Section 7525 extends beyond the traditional forms of communication (e.g., letters, telephone conversations, and face-to-face meetings) to include all electronic communications such as e-mails, faxes, voice mails, etc.
Though a Tax CPA is, in my opinion, more qualified than a “generalist” attorney (an attorney not specializing in tax) in tax law analysis, a Tax CPA is not allowed to practice tax law and whenever their is an issue that crosses over into the legal arena (such as finalizing legal documents for others, filing pleadings in court, giving advice for drafting trusts, providing advice on someone’s rights, duties or obligations or their consequences under the law, etc.) please refer to an attorney for such matters. However, if any lawyer needs proof of the importance and necessity of a CPA, let him attempt to prepare a complex tax return for any corporation or partnership group. The best of both worlds then is to hire a Tax CPA who understands the income-tax law itself, which bristles with legal questions, and who also understands the complexities of business accounting and has the skills to understand and complete complex business tax returns.
If you’re an individual, look for a small CPA firm or an individual tax professional. Larger firms generally restrict their practices to businesses, which makes sense as it is more lucrative for them. Also make certain that you find out who will be preparing your tax return, as you may have a college student with no tax background preparing your complicated tax return, and an overburdened tax manager who barely glances at the final product review it. This approach is not uncommon with many large CPA firms. Another benefit of a CPA is he will maintain your tax information much like your doctor keeps your medical records. The CPA protects and safeguards your records as if they were his own. S/he will provide you with a copy of your return and any supporting documents in a folder for you to file away for yourself. Today providing digital storage memory sticks to clients is becoming more commonplace.
Remember CPA licensing requirements vary greatly from state to state and that CPAs generally take no more than one or two tax classes prior to getting their CPA license. Therefore, being a licensed CPA alone is no assurance of tax skill. The CPA licensing examinations do not emphasize tax law and CPAs are not required to take any specific “tax” related continuing education to maintain their licenses.
With this information, why would you not insist on using a CPA with a Masters in Tax degree to prepare your taxes? It makes financial sense to require this credential.
Ask yourself, if you were ill, would you see a nurse or a doctor? Hiring a CPA without a Masters in Tax degree to take care of your taxes is the equivalent to hiring a nurse over a doctor to take care of you. Don’t make this mistake.
Enrolled agents (EA) may be a good choice for certain individual and business tax returns due to their low hourly rate when compared to other tax professionals. However, the reason for the lower hourly rate is EA’s do not have the extensive tax and accounting background and education of a Tax CPA or Tax Attorney, therefore EAs in my opinion may not be your best choice for a very complicated individual or business tax return.Enrolled agents receive their certification by passing an examination which covers certain parts of the tax law. From my experience, as I have reviewed the EA exam material, this exam is not very difficult. I would compare it to a final exam in “one” of the ten tax master’s degree courses required to complete a Masters in Taxation degree. The final exam does not require a person to be appointed to keep watch over students at the examination, which is required in a Masters in Tax degree final exam. The self-study EA exam is open-book and students can refer to the course material as often as needed to complete this exam. The only education prerequisite that I am aware of for those taking the EA exam is the requirement of a high school diploma.
The last I checked, the EA exam consists of 100 multiple choice questions in three areas of taxation: Individuals, Businesses, and Representation Practice and Procedures. This test looks at basic tax knowledge skill and does not focus on business structuring, or extensive financial or accounting knowledge. Passing this test does not prove the individual who took it is an expert in taxation. Sitting for the CPA exam requires a college degree with its thousands of college hours of accounting and related courses. More work is required for this accounting degree program than is required for any other undergraduate degree. Attorneys are required to first qualify for law school which is very difficult, complete three years of law school, and most importantly, successfully pass the Bar exam to practice law, which is probably more difficult now than in the past. So comparatively, EA’s have much less formal education then a CPA or attorney. This fact alone should make you hesitant in using an EA for any complex or challenging individual or business tax return.
EA’s are licensed by the IRS, and as attorneys and CPA’s, they are required to continue to meet certain minimum education criteria on an annual basis in order to continue to practice under this license, however they have the least amount of direct ethical supervision. Though they are subject to the rules imposed by the IRS, there is no third-party ethical board (other than the IRS itself). This group of professionals are not regulated at the state level, and the IRS will not inform you about any ongoing complaints or incompetence issues. In contrast, state boards regulate the conduct of CPAs and attorneys. In fact, State Boards produce monthly reports showing whose license was suspended or revoked and who may soon have their professional license suspended or revoked unlike EAs who are not licensed by any state. An EA is a federally authorized tax practitioner and other then obvious criminal convictions, I’ve yet to read about an EA who lost their license. The only information you can obtain from the IRS is if an enrolled agent has been suspended or disbarred.
Tax Attorneys are licensed in at least one state to practice law. Every attorney is subject to the state bar disciplinary and ethics counsel. Attorneys generally have a high degree of integrity and ethical behavior in their legal practices. Therefore, attorney’s similar to CPAs must also comport themselves with professionalism and attention to legal issues.Most attorneys do not specialize in tax law. In fact, the average lawyer does not know that much about tax law and is not shy to admit it. Those who do (“Tax Attorneys”) are expensive. Equipped with advanced degrees and the backing of state bar associations, Tax Attorneys charge a high fee. They can prepare more sophisticated individual and estate tax returns as well as provide a far more exhaustive understanding of tax laws than many other tax professionals. However, Tax Attorneys generally do not prepare individual or business tax returns as the market is not lucrative enough to pay back their time and financial investment in obtaining a law degree. Therefore, they may not have as much experience in preparing tax returns or addressing certain tax issues as compared to other tax professionals.
I have yet to meet a Tax Attorney I didn’t respect in tax law. However, you need to research the background of any tax professional to determine if he is a “Tax Attorney”. Let me define a Tax Attorney. These are attorneys with an LL.M. in Taxation. They have completed a rigorous and impressive education to obtain their Juris Doctorate (J.D.) law and LL.M. in Taxation graduate degrees. In order for a lawyer to obtain admission to a Graduate Tax Program to earn an LL.M. in Taxation, they must already have a doctoral degree in law (“J.D.”). That is, a doctoral degree is a prerequisite to a Master’s degree in the same discipline. Does this appear backwards to you? What this should tell you is a law degree, though very impressive in itself, does not necessarily mean the attorney is qualified to practice tax law. The three years of law study for which a student is awarded a J.D. degree may be insufficient in tax law.
The ABA Model Rules of Professional Responsibility define competent professional judgment as “the product of a trained familiarity with law and legal processes, a disciplined, analytical approach to legal problems, and a firm ethical commitment.” In tax practice competent professional judgment requires trained familiarity with the tax law and tax procedures, a disciplined, analytical approach to tax problems and their numerous ramifications, and a firm ethical commitment. The required training simply is not part of a regular program in law leading to the juris doctorate degree. Generally, tax classes are not required for a Juris Doctorate. Except in law schools offering a LL.M. in tax, many “tax lawyers” are graduating from law school with maybe one or two tax classes, all of which are electives. Many additional very difficult courses of tax law are required for an attorney to “Master” the tax law discipline, that is to complete a LL.M. in Taxation program. Furthermore, tax is not an intuitive subject, nor one that can be easily learned independently. A lawyer without an LL.M. practicing in tax who has not been introduced to the broad range of laws may not even be aware of the issues to be researched. This is one of my reasons for recommending that you hire an attorney with an LL.M. or a Tax CPA.
Even if the tax professional is a Tax Attorney, a Tax CPA may be a better fit depending your budget and on the type of tax project. First attorneys are expensive. Some attorneys are incomprehensible as they bewilder clients by discussing Code sections and arcane tax language when answering client questions or mapping out tax planning strategies. Often, to make the explanations comprehensible to the client, the Tax Attorney then feels he needs to provide a condensed introduction to a taxation course while the client anxiously worries about the Tax Attorneys billing time.
They also prefer to avoid certain areas of taxation such as tax preparation work, financial statement tax analysis, accounting tax transactions, tax provision work, etc. Though some people think tax is about numbers, it really depends on the issue at hand. At times understanding the business/accounting transaction is critical to determine how to apply the tax law, other times it’s all about words and researching the law, and finally it may be a combination of fully understanding both the accounting transaction and deeply researching the law. Attorneys are trained in understanding words, the law, the legal process, great at researching tax law, etc. However, there were many times in my career where an attorney requested my help. He understood the tax law but was lost with the complicated accounting transaction methodology, terms, financial statements, tax accounting impact, etc. and therefore could not properly analyze the issue. Corporate shareholders and corporate officers care a lot about how the tax transaction impacts the financial statements. For many large company’s cash-flow is not king and the financial statement impact determines many tax planning decisions. For many reasons a Tax CPA is a better choice when selecting a tax professional unless it involves a complicated tax research project with legal agreements, legal memorandums, or court representation.
Attorneys are familiar with and understand the law, rules of evidence, and courtroom procedure. Therefore, if you anticipate problems with the IRS, or if you’ve neglected to file your taxes for a period of several years, a Tax Attorney may be a good bet. Personally, I do not believe there is a difference in tax services between a Tax CPA and a Tax lawyer unless you anticipate going to tax court. Understand that tax court is an expensive endeavor and may not be worth the time or cost unless a substantial amount of money is at risk. Most of the time, disputes can be resolved within the IRS “Appeals” process where Tax CPAs can handle the job.
Similar to Tax CPAs, Tax Attorneys have attorney-client privileges and so can’t be forced to provide information to third parties or to testify against you. However, you do not hire an attorney just because attorneys have privileged communication. The IRS wants you to file your tax return and pay your taxes. Their focus is not getting evidence to put you in jail.
Tax Attorneys analyze complicated tax issues, prepare transactional tax analysis and tax memos, and review estate and trust issues, etc. If none of these scenarios apply to your situation however, you most likely don’t need a Tax Attorney.
You may get a referral from a friend, co-worker, or even your personal financial planner, but you should always check the background and qualifications of the tax professional in question, before you meet them face to face. Start your search early, not just for a tax professional but also in pulling your paperwork together. A tax professional can often provide a tax organizer which outlines what you will need to prepare your return. If your tax professional charges by the hour, planning ahead may help you avoid higher fees.
Once you have the name of a tax professional, call and ask to speak with him or her directly. If they are too busy to talk, or your call isn’t assigned to another tax professional, its best to assume that the office is too busy to handle you as a client. At that point it’s better to call the next person on your list. It makes no sense to rush to hire the first tax professional you speak to. Your decision is important and seldom is there only one person for the job. Don’t make a decision until you’ve done your homework. Talk to at least three tax professionals. Once you get them on the phone, prior to your first meeting, which by the way should be in the form of a free consultation (don’t bother with any professional if that person does not grant an initial free consultation), ask the following questions
Generally, neither attorneys nor CPAs, without extensive tax experience, have the adequate educational preparation to prepare a complicated business tax return. The CPA frequently has had only one or two tax law courses as part of his accounting program. On the other hand, a student in a J.D. program may not have taken any tax courses. In addition, since the tax law student is seldom required to know how to do any of the computations relating to tax issues, he may be incapable of actually computing the tax consequences of an intended tax plan. An attorney with nothing more than the ABA required courses is simply not your best qualified tax professional. On the other hand, though a CPA is qualified in areas of auditing and advising management, he or she generally has little experience with taxation. However, even if the CPA is knowledgeable in basic taxation, he will probably lack the knowledge of the legal issues relating to estate, business, or tax planning.
Under existing standards and educational programs, neither CPAs nor attorneys should be considered qualified tax professionals unless additional education standards are completed. The concept of additional education requirements to practice in the field of law is not new. For example, patent attorneys are required to pass a special separate examination before they are allowed to practice as “patent” attorneys. For purposes of the tax profession, this same standard should be to required for CPAs, that is to complete a “Masters in Tax” program (for attorneys to complete an LL.M Masters of law program) before preparing complicated tax returns. Thus, this problem is solved by requiring a tax professional to be either a Tax CPA or a Tax Attorney.
Tax CPAs and Tax Attorneys are qualified professionals who are experts in the complex and technical field of tax law and who are best for handling any tax return issues. They specialize in all of the small details associated with the tax law. They can provide guidance on difficult tax issues, particularly within the areas of individual, corporation, S corporation, limited liability company, trust, partnership and estate taxation. They are skilled in tax planning, tax disputes, and business taxes. Remember IRS auditors and collectors prefer dealing with experienced tax professionals. It makes their job easier. They know what the IRS wants and don’t get overly emotional.
In addition to providing tax assistance, a Tax CPA can help you with an array of financial matters that attorneys generally cannot. They may help you create a budget for next year’s taxes, help determine expected expenses or projected purchases, or provide ideas for increasing revenue. They may be able to advise you regarding certain investments and financial developments or review your individual or business financial records looking for inconsistencies. While a Tax Attorney may be able to do many of these tasks, their background is not in this area and generally their services cost more. A qualified tax professional can mean the difference between a stressful disappointing tax experience and one that’s smooth and hassle-free.
Tax planning is best prepared by a Tax CPA or a Tax Attorney. Tax strategy requires more than a reactive knowledge of tax law. You want someone who thinks ahead and doesn’t just respond to your specific issue. Someone who can take your goals, objectives, and join that with your current and most likely future tax situation and create unique tax strategies. It takes more than just a basic knowledge of tax and business to get there.
A Tax CPA or a Tax Attorney can do many things other tax preparers cannot do. They can carefully research tax statutes and master them. They thoroughly understand relevant legislative history and are familiar with the Treasury regulations and IRS rulings on those statutes. They can review and penetrate the significance of the many court decisions involved in the litigation of a tax statute. They read tax articles and books that deal with relevant tax statutes that affect their clients. It is unlikely that an EA or accountant has the training or experience that would provide them with the skills necessary to comprehend the intricacy of the tax law on difficult tax issues. It is also highly unlikely that an EA or accountant can take time out of a demanding practice, working with tax preparation or accounting analysis, and /or reviewing financial statements, to master the enormous assemblage of challenging tax laws that bears on a tax statute.
The personality study of many accountants is “black and white” rather than “gray” as they are trained to be meticulous with analysis and numbers. Tax law is saturated with vagueness and uncertainty where there is often no right or wrong answer. Tax CPAs and tax lawyers are trained to seek and find the ambiguity in the law (i.e., the “gray”). Tax law ambiguity can be used as a “device” to attack an IRS position and also as a “safeguard” to protect the taxpayer.
The most important quality of a Tax CPA or Tax Attorney is their ability to be creative with the tax law. This inventiveness arises in many ways. They use interpretative skills to find support for a taxpayer position. They find openings in a statute or a regulation that allows favorable tax treatment in situations not covered by the statute under review. They identify inconsistencies in the IRS’s published positions or private ruling letters. They use interpretative skills to lean facts, case law, regulations to favor the taxpayer. Creativity is unlimited in its ability to interpret and apply the law or the capacity to develop that knowledge through solid research skills.
In explaining what a Tax CPA or Tax lawyer does that other tax preparers can’t do, it is helpful to understand what is meant by a tax legal issue. Tax legal issues are developed from skilled, inventive, inquisitive, interpretative, and methodical research skills. Technical tax research is comprehensive and includes determining congressional intent from legislative history; from analysis of relevant provisions of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), Treasury tax regulations, IRS revenue rulings, private letter rulings and IRS administrative procedures and guidelines. Tax law is both complicated and difficult. This complexity is why both Tax CPAs and Tax Attorneys are better able to protect a taxpayer from overpaying a tax liability. They both have strong creative, analytical and interpretative skills. Explanative and analytical skills involve the studied ability to read and decipher tax legislation, cases, regulations, and other tax law authority. To recognize implied distinctions, inconclusiveness or supportive facts, argument, and relevant issues.
Tax professionals have different skills as clients have different needs. While tax laws may be clear and standardized at times, when new laws pass it may take years before the law develops clarity. When you start adding client complexities such as numerous jobs, working in more than one state, self-employed, having more than one family under one roof, tax intricacies of having many rental real estate properties, etc. you start to understand why it’s best to hire the most qualified tax professional possible. When deciding whether to use a Tax CPA or a Tax Attorney, remember many Tax Attorneys do not prepare tax returns unless paid a premium price.
If the tax professional is a Tax Attorney, check the state’s bar association to see if there are any complaints; if a CPA, check with the state board of accountancy for CPAs; and if the tax professional sells securities, check credentials at the Securities and Exchange Commission, the state’s security agency or the NASD. Make sure you investigate whether the tax professional has any questionable history with any of these agencies. If your concerned about a tax professional you can google the company and the individual you are considering hiring and put the word fraud or complaint after their name.
It’s important to find out who will actually be preparing your return and how accessible they will be to you if you have questions. You should know who works on your tax project and how to contact them, as after all, you’re the one paying the bill. Recently some accounting firms have begun outsourcing tax return preparation. This means that your tax data may have been sent out of state or local tax chain, as CPA firms sometimes contract with these firms. Understand that either way, your accountant isn’t required to tell you this information, as long as your account is outsourced domestically.
Over 150 million Americans file tax returns, and of those, two thirds pay for assistance. About 20 percent of taxpayers use a large franchise such as H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, or Liberty Tax Service to get their refunds, costing them on average thousands of dollars per return. The problem with this approach is both tax preparation and advice depend on the skills of the tax professional, and when you’re working with a system of franchises, you have very limited quality control. You may also examine company profiles (if they list them) and ask questions. Large CPA firms use professionals directly out of college with little practical experience, using these non-licensed staff for most aspects of the job, and assign one licensee professional to handle hundreds of cases.
I have included on my website referrals in the form of testimonials and endorsements. These individuals are available for you to contact either by way of email or directly by phone. This should be required for all tax professionals. A minimum of three referrals should be available upon request.
The IRS ruled in January 2008 that tax preparers are required to inform their clients if their return were being prepared outside the United States. Common sense tells you that you don’t want a tax professional to export your return to a foreign country for preparation. Foreign countries do not have the same security and privacy laws as the United States. There is no recourse should any of your information be compromised as a result of nonexistent or lax privacy procedures. Transferring key information such as people’s names and addresses, in-addition to their Social Security numbers, birth dates, and account numbers electronically makes most clients uncomfortable. Identity theft problems are often hard to pinpoint to their origin. Tax returns contain so much information in one package that it’s a great gift to an identity thief.
If you have an unusual tax situation, ask if they have handled cases similar to yours before. Also, ask if they will guarantee their work on your tax returns. This means they agree to represent you later “pro bono” if there’s a problem with the tax return. Some tax professionals will provide assistance in the case of an audit or other problem but the level of assistance and the willingness to absorb additional free time can vary from one tax professional to the next. Also ask if they are accessible year-round, not just seasonally, in the event that your situation changes or you get a letter from the IRS post-tax season.
When discussing how the fee structure works don’t be penny-wise but pound-foolish. If you are basing your decision on a low-bidder you should expect low quality work, which means a letter or a visit from the IRS or lost tax savings. There is no such thing as a free tax return as the cost of lost tax saving is an expensive tax return. Trying to save a few dollars will most likely cost you in the long run. Instead be assertive and ask if there are other fees, such as any up-front selling or any additional charges for performing some extra service either now or in the future. Don’t lock onto a tax professional with a low price. Look for education background and the services you get. Be careful of tax professionals who avoid disclosing the basis for their fees in advance as the cost of preparing any tax return can vary dramatically among different tax professionals.
Many tax professionals charge by the hour, others work from a standard schedule of charges, others by project. Some charge on a flat fee or base fee for a certain number of hours with an additional hourly fee after that or based on the amount of paperwork (basic return plus any additional forms, attached schedules, etc.). Some charge extra for getting your records organized and others simply charge “whatever the market will bear.” Consider that those who charge flat fees may lose their incentive to work harder, or to take any additional time to resolve your problem as they are not getting paid for this time. As in all professions, high levels of expertise typically command superior fees.
You want to make sure you know how much you’ll be paying, including any phone calls and other miscellaneous charges. If your tax return is complicated, a tax professional may have difficulty quoting an exact price before conducting a thorough interview. However, they should be able to give you an approximate idea of the fee. The vagueness of open-ended fee arrangements leaves many clients uneasy as some tax professionals refuse to quote a flat fee. To alleviate this issue on both parties, request that the tax professional provide a range of hours necessary for your work.
Some tax professionals require a cost retainer paid in advance, generally equal to the minimum time estimated to complete the work. If possible, ask for a written fee agreement and monthly billings with itemized statements of time and services rendered. This should help keep the bill down. In many states, attorneys are required to provide you a written fee agreement before starting any work. Remember the fees should be based on the complexity of work and not on the size of the tax saving or refund.
Also, a tax professional should never guarantee a refund before completing a tax return. Some professionals offer an immediate payment of the anticipated refund before finishing the tax return, for a fee. This payment is actually a loan. If you accept their offer, be certain that you are aware of the terms of the loan. Carefully read the fine print before signing any agreement.
Generally, they are not. For a fee, most people can take courses and become members of societies and associations. It’s not a distinction for proving excellent service. Being a member of a society does not tell you anything about this person’s tax knowledge or experience. It does not tell you his or her ethics. It does not indicate in any way that this licensee should represent you. Do not let unrelated, unprofessional titles, associations and memberships confuse you about the qualifications of your tax preparer.
Whether you hire someone at a large firm or a tax professional who works alone, that person should be accessible to you for any questions and concerns. A small firm can provide a much more personal touch but may not be able to answer your phone calls or e-mails quickly. On the other hand, a large, more aloof corporate firm may have the resources to hire more people to answer your questions promptly but lack the quality of the small firm.
Do you assist clients free of charge if they later get audited on a return you prepared? (if they say no walk away, as they have no confidence in their own work)
How long have you been in the business? (a minimum of ten years should be required otherwise they should be working under someone who has this experience)
What continuing education courses have you taken recently? (this may be listed on their website)
Are you familiar with the IRS MSSP audit guides? (if they say no walk away, as they should know this)
Do you charge on a contingent fee basis? (if they say yes walk away, as they are breaking the AICPA, State Board of Accountancy and IRS Treasury Circular 230 rules)
Can you guarantee a refund up front? (If they say yes, run)
Do you consider strategic tax planning separate from the tax preparation process? (they should, as strategic tax planning is an involved process of analysis and you want your tax professional to carefully review your tax situation to maximize your tax savings)
Do you have Errors and Omissions insurance? (if they say no beware, however they may have so much confidence in their work that they believe this is not required, though you would prefer they have this insurance)
Approximately how much time will it take to prepare my tax return? (you prefer that they are as thorough as possible as long as this does not impact your fee)
When will my tax return be completed? (remember you want a tax professional to focus on your tax return and not rush to complete this)
Will you be extending the due date of my tax return (many tax professionals extend tax returns so they can fully review all issues in your tax return)
Do you see anything on my tax return that may qualify as a IRS audit flag? (some clients prefer tax preparers who are more aggressive others don’t want any issues with the IRS even if supportable under the law if they believe this will be later challenged)
After reviewing my prior year tax returns do you think it’s possible that I missed some deductions? (this assumes your prior year tax return was prepared by someone else)
Are you accessible to answer my questions all year round and do you charge an additional fee for this service? (it depends on the question as some questions require additional research while others can be answered immediately)
Do I pay you bi-monthly or monthly and is there an interest charge and/or a grace period for late payments? (bi-monthly is the preferred though monthly also works)
Are you familiar with state and international tax laws and rules? (with a Masters in Tax degree this is a given which is why you should insist that they have this degree)
Do you have a checklist or other worksheets that will assist me to prepare my information for you? (almost all CPA firms have a checklist)
Do you meet with your clients beforehand and review the tax information before you start preparing the tax return? (most firms provide this service)
How early in the year should I book my tax interview appointment with you? (early, and the meeting should be quick, focused and efficient for both parties)
Can I send you emails directly or should I make an appointment to meet with you in person to ask questions? (emails are always preferred as there is a record and this allows flexibility for both parties)
Once you’ve selected a tax professional
Once you’ve selected a tax professional, agree to ground rules. Insist that you want to be called if there are any questions about records or your tax situation. Tell your tax professional that you want to know in writing what judgment calls were made and gray areas that were shaded one way or the other. These gray areas may be unavoidable, especially if your return was complex, but you should be aware of them. Understand that most tax professionals want to see receipts and will ask you many questions to determine your qualifications for expenses, deductions and other items. In doing so they have your best interest in mind. Tax professionals try to help you avoid penalties, interest or additional taxes that may result from an IRS examination.
The more information you are able to bring to your tax preparer, the more they will be able to assist you, and the more value you get for your money. It is important that your preparer have a clear-cut understanding of your economic and tax situations. Once you have chosen your tax professional, take time to organize your documents before the visit.
Assemble all of your documents and other information that you think may be relevant to your taxes. Although most preparers will accept a box full of documents, you can save time and money if you organize the materials into various categories. Never give original documents to your tax professional. They should insist on copies only. Look at your last year’s tax return. Go through the forms and make a note of anything new in your current tax financial situation. Make copies of your last three-year tax returns and provide this to your tax preparer if they have not prepared your taxes before.
Make a list of all tax-related questions that you want to ask your preparer. Be as informed as possible. If you have the time, read information on tax law changes to gain an understanding of how they may apply to your situation. Have specific questions about your return to ask your preparer. Also contact your preparer early in the year after you have compiled all relevant documents. Don’t wait until two weeks before the April 15th deadline to provide your documents.
Your preparer should review the list of taxable deductions and credits with you. Even if you feel that these credits do not apply to your situation, it is worth the time to check. Make sure your tax professional signs the return and provides a social security number and/or federal identification number, and office address. This means something to the IRS; that professional work was done. That’s a message to the IRS that you want to get across.
After you receive your completed tax return, examine it carefully before signing. Is the information correct? Is all the information you gave your preparer on the form? Verify that your income listed on the form matches your W2 forms and other tax documents. If you have any questions, contact your preparer before mailing in the return. If you are fully satisfied that the form is correct and complete, sign it and mail it to the IRS. Keep a folder containing a copy of your tax returns and any relevant documents for at least three years after the filing date.
Always be honest with your tax preparer. A preparer is not a tax auditor; they will not necessarily ask to see all of your source documents. Although a tax preparer may be subject to a penalty for negligence of intentional disregard of a IRS regulation, they are not held responsible for processing false information which they thought to be true. The preparer cannot knowingly omit information provided by the taxpayer. Your name is on your tax return, and it is your name the IRS will focus on. The penalty for filing false information to the IRS is harsh. Make sure to claim all eligible deductions but be honest.
Your tax professional’s profession is to become thoroughly familiar with your personal financial situation and to help ensure you provide the information necessary to minimize your taxes. If possible, they should educate you on the tax laws affecting your personal tax situation. This information will enable you to make decisions as to how your return is prepared. As your tax advisor they should be working to help you avoid problems with the IRS but should not act like an IRS auditor. After your meeting with your tax professional, you should have no question in your mind that all your personal concerns were addressed and your best interests were served. The best tax professionals are tax technicians who are not arrogant or condescending, but those who have empathy and concern for the best interests of every one of their clients.
Remember, there can be only one correct result for a client’s tax returns; the one that brings in the lowest genuine lawful tax, which translates to the smallest tax bill or largest refund possible. Judge Learned Hand, one of the most influential American judges never to have served on the U.S. Supreme Court, said:
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