A Bit of Tax Advice

I have been preparing tax returns for a VITA site for the past three years. In the course of my work there I continue to be amazed at how much tax firms attempt to charge for tax preparation. Taxpayers either can't afford their fees or have resolved from a prior year to find a better alternative. It's even more surprising considering that many of the employees at these chains are seasonal workers being paid low wages. It does make sense though. Big box chains like H & R Block, Liberty Tax, and others live for the 2 1/2 months of tax season. In order to generate a year's worth of revenue in 2 1/2 months,  they probably have to hike the prices. That's also why advertising campaigns are so intense.

Explore Options

If you are averse to using these tax chains for whatever reason you may want to consider free or low-cost alternatives. VITA services are free to many low and lower middle-income taxpayers. There are also a few free websites you can use to prepare your returns and the IRS can help you find them. Finally, there are several low-cost software packages available that carry you through every step of the way. They can't read your mind and know every detail of your life, but they can help you fulfill your tax obligation.

Consider Local Professionals

If you have don't feel comfortable with one of these frugal alternatives, or you have a relatively complex tax return you might want to consider a year-round tax professional. Although CPAs are busy during tax season, they are around all year and handle different types of return throughout the year. Because of that, it may not cost much more to choose a CPA over a tax chain. They might also be able to give you advice to improve your tax situation for the next year. CPAs that specialize in taxation are in a different league from seasonal tax preparers. Another option is to use bookkeepers who also prepare tax returns during season. Even if you can get by with on-line filing, you may need to consult a real tax professional every two or three years to see if you have forgotten something.

Put It Off (sorta)

If you don't want to bother with your tax return during the busy season you do have two options to delay your filing. First, you could file for a six-month extension to file. You'll have to pay enough taxes due on the return to avoid penalties. Then you have six months to get everything together and find a reputable professional to maximize the amount of your refund. Much the same way as the extension, you could file a quick return during tax season, and when you have time to closely analyze your potential tax benefits, or discover something that can get you more money, you can amend your return.

VITA

I've talked about VITA before. VITA stands for Volunteers in Tax Assistance, and provide their services to help regular people deal with the IRS and their annual return. Volunteers at VITA don't get any pay. By design, VITA is strictly volunteer, so you don't have to be concerned about someone asking for money, donations, or trying to sell something.

Although the volunteers at VITA are not tax professionals, they do have to pass certification tests in order to prepare returns. In addition, other highly qualified tax professional also volunteer at some sites and do quality reviews of returns prepared there. For example, I am an Enrolled Agent, authorized to practice before the IRS in the same capacity as a CPA or tax attorney. One of the other volunteers is a tax attorney. Still others have taken more advanced certifications for their volunteer work.

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