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IRS voluntary education program
For years, anyone who wanted to prepare taxes could simply hang out a shingle and start filling out tax returns for a fee. Such operations include accountants, mom and pop tax preparation firms and storefronts that pop up in January and close in April.
While a few states have regulated tax preparers, there was no federal oversight in place.
However, beginning with the 2015 filing season, the IRS is offering a voluntary program designed to encourage tax return preparers to participate in continuing education courses. This effort, known as the Annual Filing Season Program, or AFSP, is open to any preparer but targets tax pros who do not get credentials through other groups or professional associations.
The voluntary program replaces required testing the agency wanted to implement. That attempt was halted after 2 federal courts ruled that the IRS did not have the authority to mandate testing of tax preparers.
The IRS also is still issuing each tax preparer a preparer tax identification number, or PTIN.
The AFSP remains in place for the 2016 filing season. Also, several bills have been introduced in Congress that would specifically give the IRS authority to regulate paid tax preparers.
However, it's the taxpayer's responsibility to check out any tax professional, with or without outside credentials. Be sure to ask any potential tax preparer for references and assurances that the office will be open after your return is filed in case you or the IRS has follow-up questions.