Taxes can be complicated and frustrating to many people. Not only is there a risk of not filing them correctly, but many miss out on strategies that can save them money. Fortunately, Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) help millions of Americans accurately file their tax returns every year. CPAs are licensed professionals in taxes, accounting and business. Working with one can simplify the tax filing process and eliminate stress from all things tax related. Many financial advisors are CPAs and they can also help you create a full financial plan that goes far beyond tax services.
What Is a CPA?
A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is a tax professional with considerable experience and education in taxes, auditing and accounting. CPA certification requires 150 semester hours of higher education classes before candidates take the Uniform CPA exam. As a result, most CPAs obtain a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree to satisfy the hours needed and prepare sufficiently for the four tests comprising the exam.
CPAs must pass the following parts of the exam within 18 months:
- Auditing and attestation
- Financial accounting and reporting
- Taxes and regulation
- Business environment and concepts
In addition, experienced CPAs oversee new CPAs entering the field. New CPAs work 1,800 hours or more with guidance from other CPAs to sharpen their financial skills. Because of the rigorous education and work experience necessary to acquire certification, CPAs hold high regard in the financial industry. An established CPA will provide tax guidance and expertise if you have challenges or questions about your tax return.
Why Choosing a Good CPA Is Important
Because CPAs develop expertise in a spectrum of topics, it’s crucial to find one specializing in individual tax filing. While many CPAs have basic competency in this area, specializations in the field range from municipal auditing to small business needs. Additionally, because of dishonest workers and scammers posing as CPAs, conducting a thorough search for a CPA before selecting one is crucial.
There is also the obvious reason for selecting a good CPA, which is that they will save you money. A CPA that understands the tax code related to your unique situation can generally help you navigate paying taxes but they can also help you implement tax strategies that will help you save over time.
How to Find a CPA for Tax Services
As with other financial professionals and services, it’s wise to shop around before committing to a CPA. You don’t want to commit to a CPA before you know that they are the right fit for your financial situation. The following four steps can help you find the right CPA for your tax situation.
1. Create a List of Potential CPA Candidates
Instead of going with a random CPA near you who comes up on the Internet, use multiple sources to generate a list of possibilities. You can get leads from these sources:
- Ask Your Inner Circle: Your close friends, family and work community might provide helpful referrals to CPA. Also, CPAs often specialize in tax preparation for specific professions, so your coworkers might give the best suggestions. For example, if you’re a pilot, your fellow pilots may recommend CPAs they know of or employ because of the state income tax complexities in the aviation industry.
- Use the IRS Database: Unfortunately, not everyone who claims to be a CPA is an authentic, trustworthy tax professional. To filter out scammers, use candidates’ Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) to see if the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has certified their credentials. In addition, you’ll be able to see if the professional in question has completed the recommended continuing education courses known as the Annual Filing Season Program. If the CPA you’re talking to is out of compliance in these areas, it’s best to steer clear.
- Use State Licensure Information: Use your state’s online accountant board resources to verify your CPA has an up-to-date license and a record free of criminality and customer complaints. You can also use CPAverify to check the CPA’s license status.
- Get Your Taxes Filed at No Cost: If your annual income is under $56,000 or you’re at least 60, you could qualify for free tax preparation. The IRS provides the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs for those in need. Most organizations providing these services are open from the middle of January through April.
2. Consider Looking Outside Your Area
If you’re having trouble finding a local CPA, it might be time to broaden your search radius. Going beyond local professionals could mean looking at a couple of towns over or even throughout your entire state. Although meeting in person has been the norm for tax preparation, the pandemic and technological advances have made virtual meetings possible and, in some cases, preferable.
For example, you may be pressed for time and can’t travel far or don’t feel at ease sharing your financial details with someone you might see around town. Many CPAs can accommodate your preferences by using secure file transfer tools online and communicating through video calls. But, make sure the CPA understands the tax code in your state.
3. Narrow Down Your List
When you’ve gathered enough leads, you can trim them down to make your call list manageable. This is the time to be picky about what you’re looking for and evaluate based on what information is available to you. These tips can help you whittle down your list to include only the best candidates:
- Peruse Customer Feedback: Reviews from previous customers on Google or Yelp can help you see if you’d like to work with a specific CPA. Of course, almost every professional dealing with the public will likely garner a complaint at some point. But if you notice a trend of specific complaints regarding a CPA’s services, you’ll probably want to skip contacting them and find someone with abundant positive feedback.
- Eliminate Non-Related Specialties: If you’re looking for someone with a specific amount of expertise, then it’s an easy step to take if you want to eliminate anyone who doesn’t have those skills. Many CPAs will put their specialty, if they have one, on their website. Keeping only those who specifically say they can help you in the specialty you need is a good idea so that you don’t waste time with interviews.
4. Interview Your Candidates
During your CPA interviews, provide them with the most recent year’s tax return. This document will help a CPA understand if they can help you and how much your tax preparation might cost. In addition, you’ll likely share life events from the past year that impact your taxes, such as having a child or purchasing real estate property. After providing this information, you can consider the questions below as a way to begin your evaluation process.
- How Many Years Have You Worked in Tax Preparation?: If your tax filing is straightforward with no hurdles, you likely won’t need someone with decades of experience. However, if you are concerned about your situation’s complexities, you might want to pass by a newly minted CPA.
- Do You Focus on a Specific Area of Taxes?: CPAs often serve specific groups best. For example, if you’re a landlord or small business owner, you may want a CPA who is well-versed in your tax needs. This question is for those that don’t specifically post their specialties on their website.
- What Do You Charge for Tax Preparation?: While you may not get a specific dollar figure for filing, ask if the CPA charges a flat fee or by the hour. Once you choose a CPA, there should be no surprises regarding payment.
- Do You Work All Year?: Some professionals only work during tax season and are unreachable from May through December. If you prefer regular communication and access to help outside of tax season, you may want to limit your search to CPAs who will answer your calls throughout the year.
- Will You Yourself Prepare My Return?: If you’re meeting with someone from a larger tax preparation company, the person who works on your taxes may not be the person you speak with. Your tax return may be uncomplicated and therefore given to a new recruit learning the ropes. Then, an experienced CPA would sign off on the filing before sending it to the IRS. This method could make the service more affordable if you’re comfortable with the arrangement.
The Bottom Line
Finding an excellent CPA for your tax preparation is vital for your peace of mind and financial well-being. While some CPAs’ services might not be suitable for your financial situation, you can conduct your search with leads from those you trust and filter out substandard choices with online tools. Since the government holds each individual filer responsible for their tax return, it’s crucial to trust the work of your CPA. Only sign your return when you’re satisfied that the filing correctly represents your financial status from the past year.
Tips for Finding a CPA
- Many financial advisors are also CPAs. A financial advisor can go beyond preparing your taxes and actually help you create a full financial plan for your unique situation. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
- During the months in between tax time, use SmartAsset’s paycheck calculator to get an idea of how much taxes will eat into your pay. Knowing this can help you prepare to meet with a CPA and accurately relay your financial information.
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