Finding the Right Tax Preparer for You

02/02/2016 12:44 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2017

It's tax season, not that you could forget with all the media attention! Tax prep ads are all over the TV, radio, billboards, and even Facebook. Despite pop culture opinions, and even if you've filed your own tax return in the past, this year, the smart move is talking to a tax professional before you file your tax return. With the Affordable Care Act firmly in place and the signing of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015 late last year, taxes are more complicated than ever and understanding how the tax law changes may affect your tax return is not easy.

It may come as a surprise, but generally, the IRS only makes adjustments if you leave income off your return. I cannot stress enough that if you miss claiming certain tax benefits on your return, you are leaving money on the table since the IRS will not add them back for you. Therefore, the responsibility to get all the benefits, credits, and deductions you are eligible for, is yours. My advice -- get a tax pro, and give someone else some of that responsibility!

Let's face it, your personal tax return is likely your single largest financial transaction of the year so you want a tax expert -- not just someone that does taxes, but someone that understands your tax situation. You earned your money so you deserve to get every tax deduction and credit available to you so you get the biggest tax refund you are eligible for. But, how do you know you are talking to the right person?

When choosing a tax pro, I recommend you follow these tips:

  • Engage now -- the sooner you find the right preparer, the sooner you can start the filing process and ultimately get your refund, if you are owed one. Ensure that the preparer is well versed in all of the recent tax law changes and federal and your state tax codes. If you have any special tax situations such as only having health insurance for part of the year or having part of a loan forgiven, the right preparer will make sure the appropriate forms are filed with your tax return.

  • Check the preparer's history and qualifications -- Make sure to go with someone who is qualified and credible, verify your preparer is listed on the IRS Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers and with your State Board of Accountancy. It's always interesting, and often valuable, to read reviews on Yelp, Google, and other online sources as well. Ask friends, family, or co-workers for references of folks they've been pleased with in the past.
  • Avoid preparers who ask you to sign a blank return -- it is important to review your tax return completely and ask questions before signing it. Remember, you are ultimately responsible for what is reported on your tax return. Check for errors such as incorrect social security numbers, addresses, or withholding; these common mistakes can delay IRS processing of your return. Also, make sure the preparer signs your tax return and includes their Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN); IRS requires all preparer's to have a PTIN. If they don't have that number or won't sign the return, take all of your papers and walk away.
  • Use tax preparers who e-file -- the majority of taxpayers today electronically file (e-file) their tax returns. E-filing is safer than filing a paper return, offers faster processing time, and typically provides quicker deposit time if you have a refund, combine that with greater accuracy and confirmation the IRS has received your return and it is the best way to file. Good tax preparers e-file for free; if there is an additional charge to e-file your return, look for another preparer.
  • As far as the tax return process goes, if you don't hire a tax pro then these three things are critical to help you get the biggest refund you deserve. First, you need to collect all the appropriate documents and keep your information current based on your life changes. Second, be sure to use technology wisely, including the best tax return software. Finally, the most important thing you need is knowledge of the all the rules, deductions, and credits. It's that last one, especially with the tax law changes put into place late last year that has me recommending you find a great tax pro this year.