When people make resolutions post New Years, it’s very likely at least some of these goals will include financial decisions, like saving more or budgeting.
However, one fiscal issue that shouldn’t be overlooked as we enter 2010 is tax issues. Changing tax credits and laws make this a challenge for the average American to keep up with.
How to get a handle on this? The best advice I can give is to find a qualified accountant. This is where I’m going to offer some personal info.
I’ve been stung by poor accounting both on my part and those of actual people I’ve paid to safeguard my resources and report fairly but with my best interest in mind. Stung enough that over the last four years and two accountants-I’m frustrated and fiscally poorer due to bad advice- and that is a trend that isn’t continuing this year. I’ve learned the hard way.
- One accountant failed for three years, (even though I mentioned several times), to claim my children in college. I didn’t know that you could claim these expensive prodigies until a friend noted she was. When I asked my accountant, he looked blankly at me for a moment and stated, “Uh, yes of course you can claim them. You mean we didn’t do so last year?” (Or the year before, or the year before- you get the picture).
- The same accountant also failed to inform me that trading a particular child to claim with my ex-husband would cost me. The child in question is the youngest. The tax credit I’d get for her meant over a thousand dollar difference in my return. Oops.
- And, uh…I wouldn’t want to say that even though I’d driven down to his office and signed my return, somehow the federal government never got it. Four months later it was discovered that “maybe” it wasn’t sent at all.
- I switched accountants. Only to be rewarded by a person who offered decent advice to a point. However, when I queried her on the American Opportunity 2009/2010 deductions regarding kids college expenses (like computers required by the schools I’d bought for them or textbooks) she said, “Oh, yeah. I think I’ve heard about that. I’ll check.” I handed her an article I’d printed out regarding this from the IRS website. Her response? “Wow. This might help you.” (Not if I hadn’t called it to her attention).
- Even though I gave her my tax info months and months (four to be exact) nothing was touched regarding a state credit that got mixed up and was supposed to be sorted so I’d get my refund. It wasn’t tax season, so she wasn’t working full time. My papers sat until I called incessantly demanding an answer, threatening a “going postal” maneuver.
I don’t have time to deal with this. In my world, a busy one, with five dependant kids of varying stages of independence, a career writing and a passel of health issues that often plague me, along with the single parent “stuff”- I want someone I pay to sort it for me.
I’m a fairly apt individual and resourceful, as well. I liken this to car upkeep and repairs. In the decade plus that I’ve been divorced, given that I’ve learned everything from driving a forklift (so I could teach OSHA training to factory workers) to expert witness work on safety issues, to changing deadbolts and installing a security system, I think I could learn also, to change my own oil.
I reject this, however, because it’s easier and cheaper for me to have a qualified soul do so. It’s worth the $20.00 for a pro oil change. It’s irrelevant in my world to learn this task. And I’m a control freak, so I carefully choose what I want others to do for me. (Think of me like Jack Nicholson in “As Good as It Gets”)
Likewise, I delegate tax issues to the skilled and knowledgeable. I don’t really care how tax refunds or filings work as long as it does. And that it’s right. I wouldn’t want to research and inform my mechanic about the proper oil to use for winter or bug him that my car’s been sitting in his parking lot for five months.
I also don’t want an accountant that I have to coddle, read articles on MSN to take into their office so new tax credits can be noted and deducted or threaten to punch. Most of all I want to be educated on how to be smarter in the coming year with my taxable income. It’s got to be easier than this. I am paying for this frustration after all. I don’t want to go to prison because I’ve not paid something important nor for beating up my accountant. Surely this shouldn’t be this stressful, right?
In chatting with others I’ve found I’m not alone. One friend went home with her newly done tax return, downloaded a free program and found four more deductions her $175.00 “professional” return showed. Another friend had a refund error and spent five months tracking her accountant who was clinically golfing in off tax season.
Mind you, there are some wonderful, fabulous accountants out there. When we owned a few companies, I was privileged to work side by side with several. The profession itself nor the people are bad- but like any partnership you need to find a harmonious relationship. And you need to find folks who are skilled and up to date.
How to find Mr. Right (or Ms. Right) Accountant:
- Interview – Get to know them, instead of making an appointment, sauntering in and launching into filing with a brand new accountant. I suspect after my tax faux pas I didn’t interview the new accountant, I grilled him, ala inquisition style. I feel sorry for the guy, but he held up well. Like attorneys, many accountants will see you free (as this one did) for an initial visit.
- Ask Questions: When you talk with your new or current accountant, ask them to tell you about tax credits phasing out or new ones that may affect you. See if they are knowledgeable about current information. Pin them down to exact ones terminology and see if they can talk extensively. When the information begins to go over my head and the only sound is the clicking of my accountant’s calculator as he (from memory) compares various deductions, I suspect I’ve found someone who doesn’t have to look every tax morsel up.
- Accessible: One of my biggest frustrations in finding the perfect accountant was seeing how these guys can disappear immediately after tax season. What if you have a problem that doesn’t surface till months after you’ve filed? I made the mistake picking a gal who only worked (even during tax season), two days a week and who took long periods off after tax season. Another accountant I had was a CPA and a partner in his firm. Turns out he only worked during tax season and vacationed for entire months later. Ask what your accountant’s yearly schedule is like- not just the office hours. You don’t want to explain all your tax woes to someone new or wait till the person who did your filing is available.
- Get Advice: I love the good ol’ USA. I’m not opposed to paying taxes to our country. I am however, deeply opposed to watching my money flow back to the government because of poor decisions I’ve made. If I can budget myself and learn to use coupons to stretch a dollar, seems like I should have the ability to acquire some tax savvy too. I want a plan. And I want my accountant to let me in on this process. If saving money in other ways involves planning and knowledge, surely saving money all year to get a decent refund involves the same qualities. I’m paying the accountant for this. I’ll even pay extra if it’s excellent advice. But I want to be advised. Find an accountant who gives advice on how to be tax savvy all year.
- CPA’s Versus Accountants: A CPA has passed state-administered tests and frequent re-certifications. Fees are higher for CPA usually, than non-CPA’s. However, it’s been my experience that there are many non-CPA’s who excel in tax preparation. This is why you should spend time getting to know what they have to offer.
- Get Referrals: Network and discover the accountant’s clients. If you know a few very satisfied folks it’s a very good sign you’ve discovered a qualified person. I’d throw one word of caution in here though- compare individuals in similar financial situations to you. If you own a small business, seek other small business owner’s advice. Don’t pick your friend with a $300K income and a family fortune to ask if you are making $42K and struggling as a single parent. Some people have accountants on retainer and get a higher level of service than we, mere mortals, will receive.
- Ask for Long-Term Advice: If you are planning anything in the coming year(s) that is dramatic, divorce, getting married, starting or ending a business, incorporating, having a child, sending a kid to college, etc.- ask for tax savings suggestions before these areas present themselves later.
My goal in 2010- make that my resolution- is to get a handle on too many of these tax issues that have slipped by me in years past. I find it incomprehensible that I’ve had to refile three years, still have a pending, open state refund that isn’t being worked on and that I’m beginning the year, uncertain if I’ve made the right decisions last year to assure a decent refund this year- all the while paying for tax assistance. I’m resolving to correct that this year. Get to know a good accountant and work on understanding smart tax moves in 2010, to make your 2011 filing less stressful and fiscally sound.