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Its tax time again--here's what you can expect from a paid preparer

Not to alarm anyone, but we’re fast approaching April 15. And, if the thought of wading through a 700-page tax guide or slogging through a computer program seems about as appealing as getting a root canal, you’re probably already considering the services of a tax professional.

There are a number of pencil-pushers out there to choose from. You can hire a certified financial planner, enlist the aid of an accountant, use a nationally known firm or go to a local mom-and-pop business. But no matter whom you hire, remember to keep a few things in mind.

Price.
In general, tax specialists say their prices are based on the number forms and schedules to be filed and the overall complexity of the return. If you’re going with a financial planner or CPA, expect to shell out $125$600. Other CPAs, however, do taxes for as little as $75-$100, according to Pam Ahlers, a CPA and co-owner of Ahlers & Stoll in Houston. Also be aware of the fact that many consumer advocates say the prices for tax specialists are quite steep.

In any case, if a financial planner is out of your budget, you might consider hiring a nationally known firm such as H&R Block or Jackson Hewitt. With 8,500 offices nationwide, Kansas City, Missouri-based H&R Block, which handles one out of every seven returns filed with the IRS, is the country’s largest tax preparation service. According to company spokesperson Linda McDougall, H&R Block’s average customer paid $72. If you ask for Block’s premium services–designed for corporate professionals, property owners, and business proprietors–you’ll pay an average of $140. Jackson Hewitt, based in Virginia Beach, operates just over 2,000 branches, and charges an average of $100 for tax reports.

Expertise.
Considering the estimated 300 tax changes to last year’s tax bill, this year more than ever, you’ll want to go to a tax pro with experience. One such rule calls for lowering the portion of capital gains you owe Uncle Sam. Another increases the amount of money you could exclude from income derived from the sale of your house. Since the skills of paid tax professionals can vary greatly, it’s best to ask about the individual’s educational background and/or professional experience. Remember: it’s great to have a certified public accountant, but be ready to pay for the title.

Services.
Also important to consider: what services can you expect to receive, At one end of the spectrum, some mom-and-pop tax shops will simply take any records you have, enter them into a computer, and then spit out your completed 1040. At the other end, you have planners and certified public accountants who will walk you through a checklist of lifestyle, financial and other questions in order to help you cut your tax bill. Among other things, these experts will advise you of changes in the law, point out possible deductions and suggest tax-planning strategies for next year.

A CPA at an accounting firm, some people say, may provide you with more in-depth service. But the big firms disagree. “We don’t think there’s

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