5 Things Tax Preparers Should Tell You
With tax season upon us soon, it's helpful to go into the tax preparation process with reasonable expectations and knowledge of how the process will work, what the roles and responsibilities are, and what you should anticipate as an output from your interactions with your preparer.
1. What You Need to Bring
It's not always obvious which documents are even required to complete a tax return. It seems as though we’re receiving a tax document per day in the mail, sometimes in a redundant and confusing fashion. Conversely, with the heavy reliance on electronic record-keeping, people are rightfully confused over whether they should always be getting a paper statement for tax purposes or whether they need to print out electronic copies.
You should plan to have in your possession all documents related to income, investments, interest, deductions, credits, and anything else that might reasonably result in an entry on your tax return. If you do any sort of investing outside a tax-deferred retirement account, chances are that any transactions will have to be reported. Just holding on to a dividend-paying stock requires reporting of dividend income. Interest from CDs, money market accounts, and savings accounts is fair game as well.
On the credit side, if you sought to take advantage of any of the various government stimulus programs like the home energy tax credits, cash for clunkers, the new homebuyer tax credit, or others, documentation related to those transactions should be shared with your preparer. Several such topics are outlined in much more detail in this nifty tax preparation checklist. If in doubt, bring it!
2. How to Optimize Your Deductions and Credits
Some like to think of tax preparation and advice as an art more than a science. There are various ways to approach how you set up your income and expenses in your personal life, as well as in any businesses you run, in order to optimize your returns by minimizing your tax liability. Your preparer may recommend anything from optimizing your small-business expenses to pulling forward contributions and expenses into the current tax year to beat the clock and realize the larger deduction come spring.
The preparer may point out credits and deductions you didn't even know existed. Likewise, he may also warn against being too aggressive with certain tax deduction claims to decrease the risk of generating an audit. An oft-cited red flag is the home office deduction, but there are others as well that seasoned tax preparers may recommend you avoid. (See also: 10 most overlooked tax deductions.)
3. How Your Tax Liability or Refund Was Calculated
Rather than just spitting out a number at the end of a session, your tax preparer should walk you through a methodical explanation of both the income side and deduction side, share any notable impacts of various tax rules, and then highlight how and why your ultimate liability or deduction came out the way it did. There should be a full double-check of the information you provided and a chance to point out any omissions or mistakes. While there are ways to amend tax returns later, it may come at additional expense and delay. It's ideal to get it right the first time – and get that refund on time!
4. When Will Your Refund Arrive
With most tax returns resulting in a refund of some sort, it's helpful to know when your refund will arrive. Many people know they're getting a sizable refund each year and plan to use those funds to do anything from pay the annual tax bill to fund the summer family vacation. Be it days, weeks, or longer, the preparer should be able to give an indication of when to expect a refund based on her own internal timeline for submission and the typical turnaround time from the federal government. It may not be evident at the time, but the initial preparer you meet with may or may not be conducting the actual calculations and generating the return herself. Outsourcing is a common business practice now in the field, so that may add to the cycle time considerably.
5. Ideas to Better Manage Your Taxes
Aside from simply completing your return based on historical information, an adept preparer should be able to make suggestions to better manage your taxable liabilities. Suggestions may include highlighting any legislative changes that may affect you, new stimulus and tax-credit programs, how to best incorporate a small business, common deductions worth considering that you may not have tracked and documented in the prior year, and some basic investment concepts related to taxable versus tax-deferred accounts.
These are just a few of the topics an adept tax preparer should be sharing with you. Otherwise, you may be leaving thousands of dollars in tax-saving opportunities on the table each year.