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Taxes & Retirement

Aug 21, 2017

Finding Your Tax Man (or Woman): When it Makes Sense to Hire a CPA or Use an Online Service

By Rebecca Gale

To hire a pro or use TurboTax? That is a good question.

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Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza was living in Puerto Rico when she realized that she needed help with her taxes.

Buckwalter-Poza, a 31 year-old attorney, had done her own taxes for a decade, using TurboTax (and the help of her more tax-proficient life partner) and she’d always been pleased with the results. It wasn’t until she was living and working in Puerto Rico in 2015, clerking for a federal appellate judge, that she realized she was in over her head with her tax filings*.

The island’s tax code is famously complicated: one error can easily derail the process, and delay the receipt of a tax return by up to a year. Her boss, the judge, recommended his accountant, and Buckwalter-Poza took him up on the offer.

She was glad to have the help of a professional who knew the ins and outs of the local tax code, she says. She opted to continue using a tax professional, even after she moved back home to the Washington, D.C. area in 2016.  

“It spares me stress, maximizes deductions, and minimizes the potential for errors,” Buckwalter-Poza says. 

Why pay a professional to do your taxes?

Like Buckwalter-Poza, you may decide to pay someone a couple hundred dollars to do your taxes. In fact, most people do it for peace of mind, says Edward Crawford, a certified public accountant (CPA) for tax consultancy Mendelson & Mendelson, based in Potomac, Maryland.

“A lot of people could take care of [their taxes] on their own, they just don’t know if they are missing anything, ” Crawford says.

Even more important, a tax professional can help save you time and money by finding additional deductions and tax breaks.

“There are ways to look for more deductions,” Crawford says. “And [a CPA] can do some digging into things, to find out if you have some expenses that would be considered business related, things that don’t come up when you’re doing a personal return.”

If you’re considering an outside tax preparer, do your homework first, Crawford says. That includes making sure you talk to potential candidates in person. Other items to look for include the person’s level of experience and familiarity with state and local regulations.

“It’s more of an extended relationship you’d be creating,”  Crawford says.

For employees who receive a W-2, rent an apartment, and don’t have a lot of deductions, filing through TurboTax, or some other online tax service, may be the more expedient and prudent route. But for people who have mortgages and other significant deductions, are self-employed, have additional income as contractors or freelancers–or like Buckwalter-Poza, who have special filing situations, a professional preparer may be the smartest route. They’re likely to help you find additional deductions and to lower your final tax bill.

How to choose a tax preparer

If you decide to hire outside help, there are two main routes.

First, consider large tax preparation companies, such as Liberty Tax Service and H&R Block, which, on average, charge from $100 to $200 to prepare and file a return. These companies have expedited services that allow you walk in and file your taxes on-site, the same day.

Second, there’s the more expensive route of hiring a CPA to go over your filings in detail. They may charge between $500 and $1000 to prepare and file your taxes, depending on the complexity. A CPA will ask you more detailed questions about expenses, the work you do, and additional income sources, that can lead to additional deductions or tax-saving measures.

Just remember, your financial situation will tell you whether you need outside help or not. If your financial life is straightforward and you don’t itemize or have a lot of deductions, you might want to stick with widely available software services. If your tax situation is tricky, and includes lots of deductions and multiple sources of income,  a professional service and the human touch might be just the right path for you.

Written by

Rebecca Gale


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