But since taxes affect most areas of your life — and since tax laws change all the time — there are several situations when it makes financial sense to consult a tax pro, who can not only help with preparing your return but also offer smart tax planning advice.
If your financial life is simple, chances are you can handle your own tax return. That is, unless you’re too busy or just aren’t great about filling out tax forms accurately and on time.
Your tax situation is usually considered “simple” if you don’t have a whole lot of additional income outside of your regular job. For example, your income consists of your paycheck and some interest on your bank accounts. And maybe you rent your home and don’t have kids.
In such a case, do-it-yourself tax software that offers access to a live help line can take you through the process step by step, said Misty Erickson, a tax content specialist at the National Association of Tax Professionals.
But the more complex your financial life, the more important it becomes to seek professional help. That’s because tax rules, tax rates, tax breaks and tax forms will differ depending on the type of income and investments you have.
Think of it this way, Erickson said: “The more tax documents [and forms] you have [to file], the more complex your taxes.”
The IRS is going to audit you
If you’ve gotten a notice (or worse, several notices) from the IRS indicating you owe money, including penalties and interest, or that you are being audited due to underreporting of income, find someone qualified and experienced in representing taxpayers before the IRS — whether it’s a certified public accountant, an enrolled agent or a tax attorney.
Finding someone with experience is key, said John Schultz, a California-based certified public accountant. “They know the larger issues that have to be addressed and what can be brushed aside.”
Plus, they can coach you on what to say and what not to say, noted Erickson, who used to audit taxpayers in Minnesota. “If you have someone in your corner who knows taxes, they can help you and it can go that much quicker.”
You’re embarking on a big life change
Making big personal and professional changes will have tax consequences.
You invest in crypto
It’s easy to forget about taxes when you’re caught up in the excitement of a new frontier, especially for inexperienced investors. “They don’t realize there’s a lot of tax liability that goes on with these things,” Schultz said.
You run a small business or are a gig worker
Running a small business — or even making you’re living as an independent contractor — has all sorts of tax implications.
Before starting out, at least consult with a tax pro to learn about those implications, including the many tax breaks you can take based on your anticipated business expenses.
You’ll also want help figuring out how to structure your business for tax purposes. There are several options that will affect how much tax you will owe and how much liability protection you will have. There also may be different rules for how to account for your expenses and tax liabilities if you have employees or if you take on partners.
“Doing it right up front can save you a lot of money,” Erickson said.
You get an inheritance or are settling an estate
Schultz said people often tell him they got an inheritance and wonder if it’s taxable. His response: “Well, what did you inherit? A retirement account? Property? Stock? Liquid cash?”
Just as with different types of income, there are different types of inheritances, and each have their own tax consequences.
Similarly, if you’re the executor of someone’s estate, you might save yourself (and the person’s heirs) a lot of headaches if you seek help from an estate tax attorney to prepare the estate’s tax return and to learn about the federal and state tax consequences of the assets to be inherited.
Choose someone with a good reputation
As helpful as a tax pro can be you definitely want to ensure you’re working with someone reputable and competent — because if you don’t you could be left liable for unpaid taxes, penalties and interest.
The US Department of Justice recently urged consumers to learn how to spot a dishonest tax preparer. “Taxpayers are responsible for what is on their return, even when it is prepared by someone else,” said Deputy Assistant Attorney General David A. Hubbert of the Justice Department’s Tax Division. “If your preparer asks you to sign a blank return, will not let you review your return before filing it, or is depositing your refund in a way that is not clear to you, consult the IRS’s website to make sure you are not exposing yourself to trouble.”