What to Do When Your Tax Preparer Makes a Mistake

By Dan Rafter on 13 April 2017 0 comments

You might think that hiring a tax preparer to file your income taxes will guarantee a mistake-free return. Unfortunately, you'd be wrong.

In 2015, the National Consumer Law Center used mystery shoppers to test the work of 29 tax preparers. The results were surprising: Only two of the returns compiled by these preparers came in error-free. That's bad news for a lot of people. USA Today reported in February that almost 79 million e-filed tax returns were completed last year by professional tax preparers.

And here's even more bad news: The IRS says that if your tax preparer makes a mistake resulting in you having to pay additional taxes, interest, or penalties, you are responsible for paying these fees — not your tax preparer.

If your tax preparer does make a mistake on your return, what can you do? Here are five suggestions.

1. Contact your preparer

If the IRS sends you a letter claiming that there are mistakes on your taxes, call your tax preparer for an explanation. Tax preparers who do make mistakes might offer to pay any fees, penalties, or interest charges for you. This might not restore your confidence in their abilities, but it will help save your budget.

2. Pay the penalties

If the IRS is charging you a penalty for a tax mistake, even if that mistake was made by your preparer, pay it. You might be battling it out with your tax preparer in the hope of getting this professional to pay the penalty on your behalf, but the IRS doesn't care. If it doesn't receive its payment, you are the one who will face additional financial penalties.

If your tax preparer refuses to pay for its mistake, send a check to the IRS. Then continue your fight against the preparer.

3. Know your rights

Check any contract you signed with your tax preparer. There might be language in the contract stating what your tax preparer will do in the event of a mistake. Some tax preparers will pay the interest and penalties that result from a mistake, but not any extra taxes you might owe.

Some tax preparation firms, especially the big ones, might offer insurance that you can purchase for an extra fee. If you've bought this insurance, your tax preparer might be obligated to pay any interest, fees, or extra taxes you owe because of their mistakes.

Be aware that tax preparers won't pay any penalties on your behalf, even if you've purchased extra insurance, if the mistakes they've made are because you provided them with inaccurate information.

4. Check the statute of limitations

If your tax preparer made a mistake that caused you to overpay on your taxes, you have three years to request a refund from the IRS. You must provide documentation to back up your claim that you overpaid.

This statute of limitations works in reverse, too. If you underpaid your taxes because of a preparer mistake, the IRS has three years in which they can come after you for the money you owe. If your tax preparer made a substantial error, however (such as omitting 25 percent or more of your gross income), the IRS can go back up to six years. It's recommended to keep your records for at least this long. Be aware there is no statute of limitations for those who knowingly file fraudulent returns, evade taxes, or fail to file altogether.

5. File a complaint

If you discover that your preparer made an intentional mistake, perhaps to boost your return, make an official complaint with the Office of Responsibility at the IRS. If your preparer is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, National Association of Enrolled Agents, or a state law association, you can also file a complaint with these organizations. Such complaints could cause tax preparers to face fines or lose their licenses.

Reduce the odds of a mistake by hiring the right professional

Sometimes you can prevent a future mistake by hiring the right tax professional upfront. The truth is, anyone can work as a tax preparer. Preparers must apply for a Preparer Tax Identification Number from the IRS. But getting this number is easy: It costs $50, and the IRS says that applying takes just 15 minutes.

If you're searching for a tax professional, it's best to work with either a certified public accountant with experience completing tax returns, or what is known as an Enrolled Agent. To become an Enrolled Agent, tax preparers must first pass a three-part test given by the IRS that covers the ins and outs of individual and business tax returns. Some certified public accountants will also be Enrolled Agents.

Ask any tax preparer for the phone numbers of past clients. Then call these clients to ask about the work the tax preparer turned in. The IRS also recommends that consumers only work with tax preparers who charge a flat fee. Preparers who charge a percentage of your tax refund might be tempted to fudge the numbers to boost your return.

Finally, make sure that you provide all the proper documents and numbers. The tax preparer may or may not double check your numbers. Maybe you forgot about the antique you sold on eBay. Maybe you transposed a number when adding up your home office deductions. You can't depend on the tax preparer to notice that something is off or verify your numbers. The best professionals will ask you a lot of questions to ensure you've provided all the information. But others may just take your documents and enter the numbers.

The bottom line is if the IRS audits you and discovers that the preparer made mistakes — intentional or accidental — you'll have to pay any penalties and fees.

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