The filing deadline for income taxes is just over a month away on April 15. Changes to the tax laws each year mean new requirements, so how do you pick a tax preparer?
If you have a simple return, you can do it yourself with software like Turbo Tax. Some people pay a friend or have a relative file their return. While there are no national educational and professional requirements according to the IRS, many franchises and groups that provide services require their preparers to meet educational standards.
At the O’Connor Center in Knoxville, every Wednesday people of all ages sit down with tax preparers from AARP. These volunteers are part of AARP’s Foundation Tax-Aide service. They’re highly qualified in filling out many types of personal tax forms and schedules.
Kathy Gant helps lead the dedicated group of tax experts. She says each specialist has to pass a battery of tests every tax season.
“Well, the first couple are general exams on ethics, standards, and procedures. Everyone in the program has to pass those two exams. Then the third exam is on income tax preparation exam,” said Gant.
While the tax services here are free, if you hire a tax preparer from a franchise office ask for an estimate of fees, they’ll depend on the complexity of your return. Always make sure your return is checked by another set of eyes, which Gant says is carried out automatically at their centers.
“When he finishes the return, another preparer who is equally certified will go through the whole return again and look for mistakes or things the first person might have missed,” she said.
Tax preparers at many franchise offices require nearly two weeks of seminar training. Each company has a set fee schedule, with the cost being determined by the number of forms and lines that are filled.
Better Business Bureau President Tony Binkley says to look for experienced preparers.
“I think the number one thing is make sure they are reputable. Make sure they have a track record. You can check them out on our website, BBB.org. to look at their track record,” said Binkley.
Only deal with trustworthy tax preparation services. Make sure the preparer has e-file and ask for your return to be submitted to the IRS electronically.
Make sure you get a copy of your returns and your tax preparer must sign the returns and include their PTIN.
“I think one of the most important things is to make sure they have a PTIN number, that’s a Preparers Tax Identification Number. Because if they are going to be paid to prepare your taxes they should have that number,” Binkley said.
Some of the preparers at the O’Connor Senior Center have years of experience, another important aspect to consider.
“You can do the job properly if you have the training and experience. Each year it’s easier if you have the experience from previous years,” said Gant.
Free individual income tax preparation services are offered every Wednesday at the O’Connor Center by AARP Foundation tax aide preparers. People of all ages are welcome, but they can’t prepare some of the more complicated returns.