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Tax Prep & Filing

How to Hire a Tax Professional

Resources for the do-it-yourselfer and tips for finding help when you need it.

Let's face it, tax software and Internet tax preparation services aren't for everyone. Yes, they can do a good job of helping you complete and file your taxes, but they're only as good as the information you punch in. You have to be comfortable doing your own taxes and comfortable with computers.

If you are not computer savvy, are facing a difficult tax question, or simply have tax-form phobia, you may want to reach out to a professional.

Finding help online

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources online that can put you in touch with tax experts or point you to face-to-face tax help.

Your first stop should be the IRS's Web site. There you'll be able to search for local services, including free help lines and walk-in centers. You can also try the IRS's national hotline, 800-829-1040, although you're more likely to be greeted with a busy signal than a helpful voice -- and phone lines will only get busier as tax day approaches.


But the IRS site may contain the answers you seek. Features include online versions of its pre-recorded Tele-tax topics, and the agency's library of downloadable forms and publications.

Another source of free person-to-person tax help is the AARP's Tax-Aide program. IRS-trained volunteers complete your taxes for you. The service is available to middle- and lower-income taxpayers of all ages, and operates from local community centers between February 1 and April 16. You can visit the Tax-Aide Web site to locate services in your area, or post your tax question on the site's bulletin board.

At, you can also ask licensed CPAs your tax questions during live chats. And you can e-mail your questions to the site, or to CPAs in your area. (A searchable directory lets you locate professionals in your area.)

When it's time to hire a pro

If you still feel that you need more help, it may be time to hire a tax professional. Before you start rifling through the yellow pages, though, keep in mind that anyone can hang out a shingle and call herself a "tax preparer."

You can walk into national tax preparation chains with a little more confidence. Storefronts such as H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt and Liberty Tax Service require their preparers to complete extensive training before tackling your taxes. You can locate local offices at their Web sites.


Fees for tax preparation services will vary depending on the complexity of your return, but generally preparers are the least expensive way to go.

If you feel your tax situation requires more expertise, or if you are considering year-round tax advice and assistance, consider one of the following:

  • Enrolled Agents are certified by the IRS after passing a two-day exam and a background check. And they are authorized to represent clients before the IRS in the event of an audit. To find one in your area, leave your name and mailing address on the National Association of Enrolled Agents hotline at 800-424-4339. They'll mail you a list of local agents within seven business days.

  • Accredited Tax Advisors and Preparers take courses administered by the National Endowment for Financial Education and receive credentials from the Accreditation Council for Accountancy and Taxation. In addition, they must complete 90 hours of continuing education every three years. Both are qualified to handle returns for individuals and businesses, but tax advisers often handle more complicated issues such as estate planning. You can find either type of preparer through the Accreditation Council's Web site.

  • Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) pass state qualifying exams and fulfill other licensing criteria. Like enrolled agents, CPAs can represent clients before the IRS. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' Web site provides links to state CPA societies. The state organizations should be able to help you find a CPA in your area.