If the thought of preparing your own tax return feels overwhelming — even with do-it-yourself software — there’s always the option of hiring a professional preparer.
Even people who have done their own taxes for years can reach a point where their return becomes more complex and pushes them beyond their comfort level, said Brian L. Thompson, president of the National Society of Accountants. Perhaps they inherited a rental property and have to deal with depreciation, or added a freelance gig on the side.
“If you’re just putting in numbers and hoping for the best,” said Mr. Thompson, a certified public accountant in Little Rock, Ark., “then maybe you need a preparer.”
Situations that suggest consulting a professional include experiencing a big life change, like a divorce, or starting your own business, said Cindy Hockenberry, director of tax research and government relations with the National Association of Tax Professionals. Also, if you owe back taxes or haven’t filed returns for a few years, or if you have received correspondence from the Internal Revenue Service, it pays to hire an expert.
“It will be worth it in the long run,” Ms. Hockenberry said in an email.
Choosing a qualified preparer isn’t necessarily straightforward, however. Many paid tax preparers remain largely unregulated and aren’t required to undergo continuing training or testing to prove their expertise. So consumers should be prepared to do some research and ask questions.
Preparers with certain professional credentials — like certified public accountants, tax lawyers and tax specialists called “enrolled agents” — generally must meet minimum standards for education and training. States license C.P.A.s and lawyers, while enrolled agents are federally licensed.
“It’s better if a preparer has some credentials,” Mr. Thompson said.
The I.R.S. tried several years ago to regulate all paid tax preparers, but a federal appeals court rejected the effort.
The I.R.S. does, however, offer an “annual filing season” program, in which preparers voluntarily take continuing education classes and a test to stay current on tax rules. Those completing the program, along with preparers holding professional credentials, are listed in the agency’s searchable database of tax preparers.
A handful of states — California, Maryland, New York and Oregon — have laws to regulate paid preparers and make sure they meet minimum standards.
Also, Connecticut recently adopted new standards for commercial preparers, which will be phased in over several years. The new law aims to protect taxpayers and ensure that income tax preparers are qualified, in light of “increased evidence of preparer error, unfair practices and even fraud,” according to a statement from Kevin Sullivan, commissioner of the state’s Department of Revenue Services.
At a basic level, all paid preparers must have a preparer tax identification number, or PTIN, issued by the I.R.S., Ms. Hockenberry said. If your preparer doesn’t have one, that’s a red flag.
Taxpayers should always ask for references, inquire how much tax education the preparer gets during the year and ask what the preparer’s areas of specialty are, if any, Ms. Hockenberry said.
“If the preparer is unwilling to share this information,” she said, “walk away.”
Other signs that the preparer may not be legitimate include charging a fee based on a percentage of your refund, telling you to take a deduction for an expense you didn’t incur and refusing to sign the return.
The major tax chains generally provide some in-house training for their preparers, said Chi Chi Wu, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center.
H & R Block’s website, for instance, describes a 60-hour tax course for potential employees, covering topics like wages, filing requirements and ethics.
Susan Waldron, an H & R Block spokeswoman, said preparers hired after completing the initial course must take an additional 21 hours of training and complete 10 “practice” returns before working with clients. In addition, she said, returning preparers must take 32 hours of continuing education and skills training each year.
Michael Best, director of advocacy outreach with the Consumer Federation of America, warned that consumers shouldn’t assume that returns produced by paid preparers were always accurate. In a small study of 19 randomly selected preparers in 2014, he noted, the Government Accountability Office found “significant” errors in returns. Just two preparers calculated the correct refund amount; errors varied from giving the taxpayer $52 less to $3,718 more than the correct amount.
So be sure to review the return after it is completed, and question items you don’t understand, Mr. Thompson said. “Ask yourself, ‘Does this make sense?’”
Here are some questions and answers about finding a tax preparer:
How much should I expect to pay for professional tax preparation?
Fees vary by geography (higher on the East Coast than in the Midwest), the education of the preparer (C.P.A.s and lawyers tend to charge more) and the complexity of the return, Ms. Hockenberry said. Expect to pay $100 to $170 for a typical Form 1040 with a Schedule A, assuming you have only wage and investment income.
If you’re comfortable with a virtual preparer, the online service Henrytax.com matches taxpayers with C.P.A.s online and offers returns starting at $250.
Trained preparers who participate in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program provide their services free, though you must meet income or other requirements to be eligible. For a site near you, you can go to the I.R.S. website and search for free tax return preparation.
Where can I search for a tax preparer?
How can I file a complaint about a tax preparer?
The I.R.S. offers instructions on its website.