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TAX TIPS... What You Need to Know About Your Tax Man

Roughly 135 million Americans file tax returns, and of those, twothirds pay for help. While solo acts like CPAs and so-called enrolled agents have plenty of clients, almost 20% of taxpayers go through a big franchise like H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt or Liberty Tax Service to get their refund — last year an average $2,255 per return. Problem is, tax preparation and advice depend on the preparer, and in a system of franchises, that means thousands of seasonal employees and limited quality control.

The results can be dangerous. When staffers from the Government Accountability Office went undercover to get returns done by the big chains, they found "nearly all of the returns prepared for us were incorrect to some degree," according to the report. Worse yet, recently filed lawsuits allege that the owners of 125 Jackson Hewitt franchises cost the government $70 million in tax fraud and created an environment "in which fraudulent tax-return preparation is encouraged and flourishes," according to the Department of Justice. Jackson Hewitt says it stands behind its compliance procedures as well as its nationally standardized educational curriculum.

The lifeguard is asleep.
Complaints about tax preparers, including allegations of inaccuracies and returns that weren't filed on time, are up 80% in the past five years, says the Council of Better Business Bureaus. But if you think the IRS is going to police problem preparers, "the lifeguard is asleep," complains Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who took the agency to task for inaction last April. (The IRS had no comment.) Less than 1.5% of returns get audited, and while that may pacify nervous taxpayers, audits are the primary way to catch bad tax pros. The GAO found that a year after it reported poor preparers by name to the IRS, the agency had failed to audit a single one.

Professional organizations, like the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the National Association of Enrolled Agents, pack even less of a wallop because they often wait for the IRS to act. Then the AICPA will strip membership and report bad accountants to the relevant state-licensing group, says Tom Ochsenschlager, the association's VP of taxation. To find out if your CPA's been disciplined. Visit TheCPALetter.

Maybe you're hiring a tax preparer because you've got better things to do with your weekend or numbers make you dizzy — more power to you. But if you're hiring a pro because you think he's smarter than you, think again. On average tax preparers make more mistakes, and costlier ones, than Joe Taxpayer does. According to a study of IRS data, 56% of professionally prepared returns showed significant errors, compared with 47% of those done by the taxpayer. And audited taxpayers who used preparers owed an average of $363, while those who filed themselves owed $185.

Of course, tax preparers often see more-difficult returns, which could lead to more errors. But the bottom line? For one W-2, mortgage interest and a couple of kids, TurboTax is just fine. If, on the other hand, you're attaching a schedule for self-employment income or capital losses, consider getting help. And even then, if a return is made complicated by a onetime event — say, the birth of a child or the acquisition of a rental property — you might need only one year's worth of advice. "If nothing changes, you should be able to copy it from year to year," says Ochsenschlager.

Qualifications? What Qualifications?
Every April, Sen. Grassley calls IRS officials before the Finance Committee to grill them on taxpayer protection. He's increasingly concerned about unethical, unlicensed tax preparers and what he calls "sharks in the water." "Anyone can call himself a tax preparer," Grassley laments. Many do. There's no mandatory national licensing, and Oregon and California are the only states that require tax pros to take a test. That means as many as 600,000 tax preparers are unregulated, according to the National Taxpayer Advocate, the taxpayer assistance wing of the IRS.

Translation: There's no universal standard for qualification. Licensed preparers, who are usually CPAs or enrolled agents, are tested and must meet ongoing education requirements. Unlicensed preparers do neither. This is usually not a problem. But in the worst case scenario — say, a tricky audit — only a pro with a license (or a lawyer) can represent you before the IRS. At stores like H&R Block, you'll pay extra for representation.

If it's February, you're too late.
From February through April, tax pros are generally too busy to talk to new clients. So if you don't already have a preparer lined up, by the time you actually have your W- 2s in hand, you're not going to get good service, In the fall, though, tax preparers will give you their full attention. That means you should be talking to tax preparers in October and November.

Not only that, but talking to a tax pro in the fall means you still have time to plan. If you wait until you have all your W-2s, you've locked in all your income for the year. But in the fall a good preparer can help you figure out ways to manipulate your income by increasing your 401(k) contributions, deferring a bonus until the new year or taking taxable losses.

You hired me, but your return is being done by some guy in India.
The number of outsourced returns is still small, but they're becoming increasingly common. That means your data might be sent as far away as India — or as close as a local H&R Block, since the chain contracts with CPA firms to do returns. Either way, your accountant isn't obliged to tell you. It’s scary to think that your most sensitive information may have gone halfway around the world, and you have no idea. Sending Social Security numbers, names, addresses, birth dates and account numbers overseas electronically makes some people uneasy. A return is a goldmine for an identity thief.

An overseas company can process a return overnight for as little as $50, much less than a CPA's hourly rate. CCH, which provides such services, estimates that 240,000 returns will be outsourced in 2008 — up 20% from 2007.

Taxes, shmaxes — let me see what else I can sell you.
The real money in tax prep has nothing to do with 1040 forms and W-2s. For the big-chain preparers, as well as your local accountant, the register really lights up only when they persuade you to take a loan, open a retirement account or buy insurance.

Chances are you don't need what they're selling, but the sales pitch may blur the issue. GAO staffers reported that when they visited the big-chain tax preparers, loans were described as "options" or "bank products". Worse, these extras can do more harm for consumers than good: More than 80% of those who opened an "Express IRA" at H&R Block, for example, paid more in fees than they earned in interest, according to a lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general. (H&R Block says most Express IRA accounts opened between 2001 and 2005 have yielded "positive net tax savings benefits and interest earnings," even as the company "has lost money operating this program.") CPAs, too, are in the sales game, ever since the AICPA allowed members to sell insurance products. When commissions can be $20,000, says Terry DeMuth, an insurance wholesaler in California, "it's easy to get greedy."

If I screw up, I'll pay up.
Worried about an audit? Many large companies are happy to ease your mind — for a price. Both offer the option of buying a souped-up guarantee that promises to cover any back taxes you owe, plus interest, fees and penalties. Here's what they don't say: You don't need the extra protection. If it turns out you owe back taxes, the big chains' basic (read: free) guarantee already covers fines, penalties and interest. Many CPAs and enrolled agents will do the same; they often have insurance for that very purpose. Just be sure to ask about it before one does your return.

What about back taxes? True, they could amount to a bigger expense than the fines and penalties, which may be why some chains can sell that extra guarantee. But they will usually cover you only up to $5,000 and exclude the most complicated returns. If you're tempted, know there may be an unintended consequence: If someone pays your taxes, the IRS considers that taxable income.

Tax preparation is an art, not a science.
A recent law tightened penalties for tax preparers who play fast and loose with the tax code, taking farfetched positions because they know 99% of returns never get audited. That said, for anyone with a complicated or unusual financial life, there's still lots of wiggle room, says Kerstetter, the CPA: "It's about 10% black, 10% white, and everything else is in the middle."

Chances are good you have room to maneuver if you have income in a category the tax code treats flexibly — you're self-employed, for example, or own rental property. Ditto if you've earned big capital gains or incurred high or unusual medical expenses. In short, if you're attaching a schedule to your return, a good tax preparer will pay for himself. Now, that may mean raising a red flag with the IRS, and a good preparer should explain if he's taking risky positions.

If you can't stomach the specter of an audit, you'll want a pro to err on the side of caution. And think twice before paying someone to look for loopholes if your income picture is relatively simple. "If you've got one W-2, you don't need someone fancy," says Kerstetter. "There's not a lot we can do for you."

You could find a much better deal if you'd only shop around.
There's no standard price for doing taxes. Some preparers charge by the hour, others by the form; either way the cost depends on where you live, the complexity of your situation and the qualifications of your tax pro. Consider: The average H&R Block customer pays about $150; a CPA may charge 15 times that. Jay Adkisson, a California lawyer who specializes in helping people protect their assets, says, "People rely too much on word of mouth; they don't shop prices." If they did, they might be surprised. A licensed local pro may NOT cost much more than a national chain.

Even among franchises prices vary. The return that cost $90 to prepare at one big store cost more than three times that at another. To be fair, it may be hard to know what your return will cost before the preparer actually spends time on it. Ask for estimates using last year's return — that'll give you a point of comparison to find the best price.




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