LEWISTOWN - As tax season approaches, those interested in hiring a professional tax preparer may want to consider a few things. Local tax professionals offer a variety of tips, and although their advice may vary, they all agree on one thing: the importance of word of mouth.
Craig Burlew, office manager at the H&R Block in Lewistown, said when selecting a tax prepaper, it's important to ask if he or she will stand behind their work. This means: will the tax preparer pay the Internal Revenue Service penalty and interest?
Burlew said interest could accumulate after the due date of the tax return passes, or there could be a penalty that arises from a mistake made. If the preparer makes a mistake, he or she should pay, he said.
Burlew also advises people to ask their potential tax preparer if he or she is available year-round. It's important to find out if the tax preparer has office hours or can be contacted if there is a problem with the IRS, he said.
Some people may have questions about next year's tax return, or inquiries about money. Many people ask about their retirement fund, and how much money they should pull out. It's important that a tax preparer be available to address these questions, Burlew said.
Also important when searching for a tax preparer is experience, Burlew said.
"I would hope that it's more than one (year of experience), but of course, the more the better," he said.
New this year, the IRS has begun making tax preparers register with them. If signing a tax return, a
preparer has to be registered with the IRS, Burlew said, so it's important to make sure this is done before selecting someone.
One way to verify that the tax preparer is registered with the IRS is to ask to see his or her PTIN, or preparer tax identification number, Burlew said.
Also new, Burlew said, is that tax preparers must pay an annual fee to register with the IRS. A one-time test, which hasn't yet been made up, also will be added to the qualifications, he said.
Additionally, to be implemented in the near future, the IRS will require registered tax preparers to undergo 15 hours of continuing education each year. Also, eventually a database will be set up on the IRS website where people can look up tax preparers in their area, Burlew said.
Another tip when looking for a tax preparer, Burlew said, is to ask the preparer questions over the phone, maybe before meeting him or her in person.
"See what their knowledge is like," he said.
Burlew explained that someone who relies solely on the computer and can't answer tax questions may be problematic.
"Some are just lost without a computer," he said.
And lastly, Burlew said: ask friends who they might recommend. He suggests that people ask around to find out if the preparer that others use stands behind his or her work, and is known for accuracy, he said.
Janette Gentry, certified public accountant and partner at Miller-Gentry Certified Public Accountants in Mifflintown, said "no one size fits all" when it comes to choosing a tax preparer.
Gentry emphasized the importance of understanding the fee structure when choosing a preparer. Fee structure refers to how the preparer will charge the client for doing his or her tax return. Some preparers have minimum fees, she said.
"You should also keep in mind what your future needs are," she said.
Those planning on starting a small business may want to look for a tax preparer who can offer guidance in this area, Gentry said.
Gentry also said confidentiality is important. Most tax preparers have strict confidentiality rules, she said.
"It should be somebody who is compatible with your basic ethic structure," she said.
People should be able to trust their preparer, Gentry said, and the preparer should understand what the client's ultimate goals are.
Gentry also advises people to talk to their friends and neighbors when it comes time to make a choice.
"Find out who they go to (and) are they satisfied?" she said. "Most of our business comes from word of mouth."
She added that clients need to make sure they receive a copy of their tax return that has been signed by the preparer.
Robert Church, owner of Church's Accounting Service in Decatur Township, said his No. 1 tip for those who decide to choose a preparer is to listen to word of mouth.
"My biggest clientele comes from word of mouth," he said.
Patty Church, Robert's wife, who helps out at the office, said she suggests that people ask their potential preparer how many years of service or experience he or she has, and who he or she has worked for before. Also, it's important to know if the potential preparer can back, or stand by, his or her work, Patty said.
"Those would be the things that I would personally look for," she said.
Patty also said clients should "always, always, always" check over their return before they sign it. Even a little typographical error could alter the return, she said.
Robert Church added that he advises people to bring along all of their tax-related forms when meeting with a preparer.
"If you're not sure, bring it," he said. "I'd rather have too much information than not enough."
Using a preparer is beneficial, Robert said, because oftentimes people miss little credits on their taxes, such as education or working credits. Also, many people misunderstand general guidelines or descriptions. Tax preparers provide their clients with basic knowledge when it comes to returns, which especially is advantageous for small business owners who may be unaware of what they're qualified for, he said.
"(They should know) what records they have to keep in case they get audited, stuff like that," he said.
The Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants offers several additional tips for choosing a tax preparer: be leery of those who promise a big return before they prepare tax forms; and make sure the preparer has a protocol in place to protect the client's personal information, including the Social Security number.