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Stop paying so much for tax help

(Photo from Flickr used under Creative Commons license from user <a href="" target="_blank">401 (K 2012</a> )

If there is ever a year in which you might be tempted to hire a tax pro, this could be it.

The Internal Revenue Service is warning it will probably answer fewer than half of the phone calls it receives. Many people may struggle with calculating their health insurance subsidy or figuring out if they need to pay a penalty.

That all means people who prepare their own taxes by paper or through software may struggle to find help when they get stumped by new tax rules or a tax situation that’s new to them.  “We’re just adding layers of complexity that are more likely to push people away from doing it themselves,” says Roberton Williams, an economist with the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. “Even with software, returns can get a little tricky.”

Even people who aren’t affected by the new health care rules might feel need guidance after going through a major life change. Buying or selling a house. Having a baby. Getting married or divorced. Adjusting your investment portfolio. All of these changes, overwhelming enough on their own, create the need for different tax credits and deductions and can drive people to seek professional help to make sure they’re claiming everything they qualify for, and that they’re doing so properly, Williams says.

As it is, most taxpayers outsource the hard work to a professional. Roughly 60 percent of individual tax returns are filed by a tax preparer, according to the Internal Revenue Service. That’s barely budged in recent years, even as filing software, including free options found online, have improved and made the entire process easier.

Hiring help isn’t cheap. Taxpayers who itemize deductions should expect to pay an average $273 for the standard Form 1040 and a schedule A with a state tax return, up 4.6 percent from last year, according to the National Society of Accountants. Someone who doesn’t itemize deductions will pay an average $159 for a 1040 and a state tax return.

But most taxpayers would be better off keeping the cash in their wallets — or in their refunds. Even though the tax code is growing more complicated, most tax returns are actually fairly straightforward and can be done at home using tax software, tax experts say. What pushes many taxpayers to walk into a tax pro’s office is fear of getting it wrong.

“People don’t want to make a mistake,” says Jeremy Edwards, a senior analyst at IBISworld that studies the tax preparation industry. “Sometimes the attitude is just to pay that money and get it done with.”

In some cases, people don’t file online because they aren’t aware that they can, Edwards says. Low-income taxpayers are more prone to doing their taxes in person with a paid preparer, he says. Young and middle-income taxpayers are likely to use tax preparation software online or through their desktop. And wealthier taxpayers, who have more income and are filing for more tax credits and deductions, are more likely to hire an accountant, he says.

Some taxpayers might be able to save on tax help depending on where they fall in the spectrum. People who make less than $60,000 can file their federal tax returns for free through IRS Free File, a partnership the agency has with tax preparation companies to offer free electronic filing. This year, TurboTax is also giving those taxpayers free state returns and H&R Block is charging $9.99 for one state return through Feb. 15. Through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, volunteers set up in libraries, schools and shopping malls to offer free tax help to seniors, people with disabilities and to people who generally make $53,000 or less.

If you don’t qualify for free help, tax preparation companies are making it easier for people to file online, and the fees for their online and desktop software will generally be less expensive than paying to sit down with an accountant or a tax preparer.

TurboTax, for instance, gives more detailed explanations for online users who say they don’t feel confident about doing their tax returns. H&R Block rolled out a new user interface that makes it easier for people to move from one section to the next. Both companies let taxpayers start their returns from their smartphones. And H&R Block, TurboTax and Jackson Hewitt make it possible for people to automatically import information from their W-2 forms, saving taxpayers from tedious data entry.

Before booking an appointment with an accountant, Williams recommends taxpayers check the IRS Web site, which offers detailed instructions and explanations for tax credits and deductions. Most online tax providers will also connect taxpayers with an expert online or on the phone if they have questions.

If they still don’t know how to proceed with a certain aspect of their return, some people may cave in and pay for help after getting stumped. “Any time things change and you can’t just go back and copy what you did last year, it’s unsettling,” Williams says.

But paying for help one year doesn’t have to lead to a costly pattern. “Once you settle down you can do it yourself the next year,” he says. “It’s a lot easier once you’ve got a model to follow.”

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