taxes

Choose your tax preparation service wisely

Death and taxes are two of life's certainties. So it's somewhat surprising that finding a tax preparation service can be fraught with uncertainties.

When it comes to finding a tax preparation service, taxpayers should proceed with caution. There are many options available, including franchised tax prep centers, enrolled agents, certified public accountants and tax attorneys. But choosing the wrong preparer can cause unnecessary headaches for taxpayers. Follow these five guidelines:

1. Select a preparer who will represent you in an audit. Enrolled agents, CPAs and tax attorneys are allowed to represent taxpayers before the IRS in an audit and other related matters. Ask your tax preparation service if they have at least one such professional to represent you if you're audited.

2. Never choose a service that guarantees you a refund. No legitimate, law-abiding tax preparation service can truthfully promise a large tax refund before learning about your tax situation. If you are due a refund, it will be discovered by any service that correctly completes your returns.

3. Opt for a service with approachable employees. Keep a tax preparation checklist of items to review. When you ask questions, look for your tax preparer to be responsive and patient. As a taxpayer, you are responsible for the accuracy of your returns. If you have questions that aren't getting answered by the preparer, take your tax returns elsewhere.

4. Research past complaints. Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there are unanswered grievances against your tax preparer. If you're considering using an enrolled agent, contact the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility, or OPR, to see if any complaints have been lodged against him or her. For certified public accountants, check with your state's board of accountancy. For tax attorneys, check with your state's bar association.

5. Consider using free IRS help. Some taxpayers, such as those with a total income of less than $49,000, the elderly, military personnel and those with special needs, may be able to skip the traditional tax preparation service. Instead, they could schedule an appointment with an IRS office to have the return prepared by volunteers at no charge. There are certain qualifying restrictions. The IRS website offers more details about this program.

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