By Jack Newton

A struggle that many people experience at tax time is deciding whether to do their own taxes or hire a tax pro. To reach the correct decision – and make this tax time a less stressful experience – it's important to understand the different types of tax professionals, and the pro’s and con’s each one brings to tax preparation. We'll explore when it may make sense to do your own taxes, and then look at situations when you should strongly consider hiring a professional. Making an informed decision simply makes good financial sense.

Convenience, time, cost, and the degree of complexity in a person's tax situation are the primary factors that need to be considered when choosing whether to do your own taxes or hire a pro. The lowest cost option, of course, is always doing it yourself – whether it's pen and paper or using a tax prep software product. The downside is that you'll end up spending several hours of your time on the task. Furthermore, dealing with today's complex tax code on your own means you run the risk of making a mistake that could adversely affect how much taxes you'll end up paying. Equally important, you also may not recognize a tax savings or beneficial financial opportunity. On the other side of the coin, a good tax professional – for a fee – almost always saves a person both time and effort and can potentially offer advice and expertise that can reduce one's tax obligations.

Types of Tax Professionals

Tax professionals, generally speaking, can be lumped into four main categories: retail tax preparers (such as H&R Block), certified public accounts, enrolled agents, and tax attorneys. An Enrolled Agent is someone who is federally licensed to prepared taxes and is considered an expert in the field of taxation. Tax attorney's, being the most expensive of the professionals, are used commonly in situations where the taxes are highly complex, such as tax shelters. Retail tax preparers may be an enrolled agent or a CPA, or (as is most common) neither of the two. Statistics show that 60% of all Americans have their taxes done by a professional.

Hiring a Tax Pro – the Argument For

The greatest value in using a tax professional is in their expertise. Navigating through all the complex tax rules and regulations requires a knowledge and skill most people simply do not possess. A good tax advisor will ask the right questions, dig into your financial picture, and come up with the optimal result for your tax scenario. Additionally, tax experts should be able to provide sound financial advice – especially in the areas of IRA's, capital gains, and tax shelter. For some of us, using a tax professional is appealing if only for the time savings and not having to endure the headache of preparing the forms ourselves. But one caveat to always keep in mind – not all tax advisors are created equal. Hire a bad tax advisor and you can expect to have bad things happen. Be sure to actively engage a prospective tax advisor with questions, ask your friends or family for referrals, and always double check the math to ensure a correct tax return. Whether using a tax professional or doing your own taxes you are ultimately responsible for what is reported on your tax returns.

Examples of when it's strongly suggested to use a tax professional:

1. You own or have sold a business

2. You have investment gains and losses

3. You work in one state, and live in another

4. You have income (including dividends) from foreign countries

5. You have investment rental properties

6. You have a tax-free exchange of property

7. You may be exposed to the alternative minimum tax

8. Your marital status changed

Using a Tax Professional

Pro's

• Saves you time

• Convenience – you don't have to deal with forms

• Normally a fast process. Electronic filing mean you get tax refunds quicker

• In case of an IRS audit – a tax pro will provide assistance in working with the IRS

• Organization of documents – historical filings easily accessible

• Advice and information – both tax and financial related

• Expertise in tax laws and regulations that the average layperson does not possess

Con's

• Cost – a recent National Society of Accountants survey revealed found that the average tax preparation cost of a federal 1040 form with itemized deductions, and state taxes is $229. The tax preparation fee without itemized deductions was $129. With more forms, and more complex taxes, the fee only goes up from there.

• Not all tax professionals are equal- be aware that they can make mistakes as well.

Doing Your Own Taxes – the Argument For

Paying a tax advisor good money to simply enter numbers into a computer doesn't make much sense. We can all agree on that. So, for some people, completing your own tax returns is certainly a viable option. Most experts agree that for people who are single, with one job, and limited assets, doing taxes on their own (with only pen and paper) is a viable option. But as the level of complexity increases – the chances rise that you will make a mistake or possibly miss tax saving opportunities. Tax preparation software, which fills the role of a tax professional to a limited extent, certainly helps with minimizing mistakes. Leading software products such as TurboTax or H&R Block’s At Home are fairly easy to use and light on the pocketbook. They serve the role as an impassive tax preparer in that, as you use the software, you are prompted with questions and presented with useful tips and guidance. However, if you enter incorrect information, as in the case where you may be confused with a certain question, you could end up costing yourself some money or at least a missed opportunity to save money. Even if you decide to do your own taxes, consider having a tax preparation expert do your taxes every 4 or 5 years to see if you’re missing any savings opportunities.

Doing your Own Taxes

Pro's

• Cost – minimal outlay required if using software

Con's

• Time and effort – be prepared to give up several hours of your time

• Lack of tax expertise – risk of missing opportunities for tax savings

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