Five Steps to Hiring a Tax Pro

Cameron Huddleston, Contributing Editor,
Saturday, February 16, 2008; 12:00 AM

Has your tax return gotten just too complicated to handle on your own? Or maybe you just don't have the time to fill out all those forms. So now you've decided to bite the bullet and hire a tax pro.

If your tax situation is relatively simple, you probably can get by with a commercial preparer such as H&R Block or Jackson Hewitt. Or consider an enrolled agent, who is certified by the IRS after passing a two-day exam and a background check. Enrolled agents are authorized to represent clients before the IRS in the event of an audit.


When to Call a Tax Pro

The Kiplinger Tax Center

However, if your tax return will be complex, you just started a business in the past year or you are looking for year-round tax advice, consider hiring a certified public accountant (CPA) or certified public accountant/personal financial specialist (CPA/PFS). Another option is an accredited tax adviser or preparer, who receives credentials from the Accreditation Council for Accountancy and Taxation and must complete 90 hours of continuing education every three years. Both are qualified to handle returns for individuals and businesses, but tax advisers often handle more complicated issues such as estate planning.

Those are the various professionals who can help. Picking the appropriate type of preparer is the easy part. Actually finding the right person to do the job can be tough.

"This person is going to know as much about your financial situation as your spouse, so it needs to be someone you're comfortable with," says Rick Barksdale, CPA and manager at Kraft CPAs in Nashville, Tenn.

If you're thinking about enlisting the help of a professional tax preparer for the first time or are searching for someone new because you're not satisfied with the service you're getting from you current preparer, follow these five steps.

Step 1: Get a referral. Barksdale says his firm's number-one source of new clients comes from referrals from existing clients. So ask your friends, family and colleagues whether they can recommend a tax preparer. If you are new to an area, check with your state's CPA society, which should be able to help you find a CPA in your area, the Accreditation Council's Web site for an accredited tax adviser or preparer, or the National Association of Enrolled Agents' directory.

Then narrow your list of recommended tax preparers down to two or three candidates, who you will then call or visit for an interview.

Step 2: Interview candidates. If you're trying to hire a new tax preparer in the midst of tax season, you might have a hard time finding someone who can sit down with you in his or her office for a long interview, warns Michael Eisenberg, CPA/PFS and founder of Eisenberg Financial Advisors in Los Angeles. However, most tax preparers should have time for a phone interview of 20 to 30 minutes. If they aren't willing to give you a few minutes on the phone -- or want to charge you for the initial interview -- then look elsewhere. "You want somebody who is willing to listen to you, hear what you're saying and answer your questions in plain English," Eisenberg says.

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© 2008 The Kiplinger Washington Editors