Topic no. 254, How to choose a tax return preparer

If you choose to have someone prepare your tax return, choose that preparer wisely. A paid tax return preparer is primarily responsible for the overall substantive accuracy of your return and by law, is required to sign the return and include their preparer tax identification number (PTIN) on it. Although the tax return preparer always signs the return, you're ultimately responsible for the accuracy of every item reported on your return. Anyone paid to prepare tax returns for others should have a thorough understanding of tax matters and is required to have a PTIN. 

Choose a tax return preparer you'll be able to contact in case the IRS examines your return and has questions regarding how your return was prepared. You can designate your paid tax return preparer or another third-party to speak to the IRS concerning the preparation of your return, payment/refund issues, and mathematical errors. The third-party authorization checkbox on IRS tax forms gives the designated party the authority to receive and inspect returns and return information and to discuss the processing of your current tax return, including the status of refunds for one year from the original due date of your return (without regard to extensions). Exception: The third-party authorization checkbox for Form 709, United States Gift (and Generation-Skipping Transfer) Tax Return expires three years from the date of filing. See Topic no. 312 for information on how to extend the authority to receive and inspect returns and return information to a third-party using Form 8821, Tax Information Authorization.

Steps you should take to find a tax return preparer

Most tax return preparers are professional, honest, and provide excellent service to their clients. However, dishonest and unscrupulous tax return preparers who file false income tax returns do exist. See Make a complaint about a tax return preparer if you have been financially impacted by a tax return preparer's misconduct or improper tax preparation practices. You should always check your return for errors to avoid potential financial and legal problems.

Free tax preparation

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) is an IRS-sponsored program that provides free tax filing assistance using IRS-certified volunteers. The VITA program offers free tax help to individuals with low-to-moderate income, persons with disabilities, elderly and limited English-speaking taxpayers. VITA also offers access to free tax preparation software for those who are able to prepare their own tax returns. If your return is determined to be out of scope by the VITA site, you will be referred to seek a paid tax preparer.

You can locate a VITA or Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) site near you by visiting the VITA/TCE Locator Tool.

The following points will assist you when selecting a tax return preparer:

  • Be wary of tax return preparers who claim they can obtain larger refunds than others can.

  • Avoid tax return preparers who base their fees on a percentage of the refund or who offer to deposit all or part of your refund into their financial accounts.

  • Ensure you use a preparer with a PTIN. Paid tax return preparers must have a PTIN to prepare all or substantially all of a tax return.

  • Use a reputable tax professional who enters his or her PTIN on the tax return, signs the tax return, and provides you a copy of the return (as required).

  • Consider whether the individual or firm will be around for months or years after filing the return to answer questions about the preparation of the tax return.

  • Never sign a blank tax form.

  • Good preparers will ask to see your records and receipts. They'll also ask questions to figure things like the total income, tax deductions and credits.

  • Check the preparer’s history. Taxpayers can ask the local Better Business Bureau about the preparer.

  • Check the person's credentials. Only attorneys, CPAs, and enrolled agents can represent taxpayers before the IRS in all matters, including audits, collections, and appeals. Other tax return preparers who participate in the IRS Annual Filing Season Program have limited practice rights to represent taxpayers for audits of returns they prepared and signed. See Annual Filing Season Program for more information.

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