There’s a fine line between filing your own taxes and seeking a professional’s help. The wrong move could lead to an inaccurate return, a call from the Internal Revenue Service — and extra fees and penalties.
So what’s the tipping point?
Going to a professional for what could be a simple return would mean spending hundreds of dollars when you can do it for free online or a minimum fee of $40 on TurboTax. The National Society of Accountants says the average cost is $176, but can run as high as $688 or more, depending on the complexity of your accounts.
Mark Jaeger, director of tax development at tax software company TaxAct, advises asking yourself three questions:
• How much time do you have?
• How much will it will cost?
• And what is your level of comfort?
There’s no real definition of a simple tax return, because a “simple tax situation” looks different for everyone, he said. “I go off that level of comfort,” he said.
Tax return software companies TurboTax
among others, are introducing hybrid services that allow users to work with a real tax preparer (an enrolled agent or CPA) on the spot for $150 (they will also review your return before you file). While working in the program, the user can click a button and type in their question for an expert for an immediate answer or after scheduling an appointment.
“You don’t have to leave and hire a babysitter or take off from work, you’re able to get that same level of service,” said Lisa Greene Lewis, a CPA at TurboTax. H&R Block
also allows free online consultations.
When should you do it all yourself?
Tax-filing software companies can be very user-friendly. They ask questions, such as if you paid for any tuition or what state some investments hailed from, and prompt the user to upload the proper documents.
Ask these three questions, according to personal-finance site SmartAsset:
• Has your tax situation changed?
• Will you itemize or take the standard deduction?
• And do you own a business?
It also helps if you’ve organized your tax documents (including W-2 forms, receipts for itemized deductions and 1099 forms for additional income), the site said. Filing your taxes on your own could take a few hours, or a few days, depending on how prepared taxpayers you are and how complicated your software
When to consult a professional
Situations aren’t always as “cut and dry” as a single taxpayer entering a W-2, answering “yes or no” to questions and clicking submit. Some people may have to weigh options, such as whether it’s a better financial move to file jointly or individually when married, and may need an expert’s opinion to discern the benefits or risks.
Freelancers may have trouble assessing how to crunch the numbers for all the income they earned in any given year and what counts as a qualified business deduction versus one the IRS may potentially audit. Some taxpayers may not even know they have to include certain types of income, like interest from a savings account.
Also see: My secret tax weapon costs 99 cents
What kind of professional should you choose?
Enrolled agents are licensed by the Internal Revenue Service, Certified Public Accountants are licensed by state boards and have completed study in accounting at a college or university, and attorneys are licensed by state courts and earned a degree in law and passed a bar exam.
There are other tax return preparers who have no professional credentials but may have studied accounting. Tax experts also charge differently: Some have set prices or fees based on complexity or an hourly rate.
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