What Is a Tax Advisor? Attributes to Look For

Since Betterment isn't a tax advisor, we often suggest that customers see a tax advisor regarding certain issues or decisions. Who exactly is a tax advisor and how should you think about picking one?

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Tax season is now upon us. Now that you’ve probably received all of your tax forms, you may be facing a choice for how to proceed with filing: do it yourself with tax software or hire a professional tax advisor?

Although it certainly will be more expensive than using tax software, hiring a tax advisor makes sense for certain individuals, depending on their financial circumstances.

Here are two important factors to consider when deciding if a tax advisor is right for you:

  • Time: Even with tax software guiding you, filing your taxes yourself can be time consuming. You’ll need to make sure that you’ve entered or imported the data from your tax forms correctly, which often takes at least several hours, and your time is worth something.

  • Complexity: The more complicated your financial situation, the more a tax advisor may be able to help you. Have partnership income, or income from an S corporation? Been subject to alternative minimum tax in past years? Received or exercised stock options this year? Tax software can handle these issues, but it will take time, and the risk of mistakes (and even an audit) increases.

If you decide that your situation warrants professional assistance, some further questions are worth exploring: what exactly is a tax advisor and how should you think about picking one?

Who counts as a tax advisor?

Anyone with an IRS Prepare Tax Identification number (a “PTIN” for short) can be paid to file tax returns on behalf of others. But merely having a PTIN doesn’t tell you much about the tax preparer; tax preparers have different experience, skills, and expertise. What you really want is a tax advisor, a professional with a certification and experience level that qualifies her not only to prepare your return, but to use her knowledge of the tax code to provide advice on your financial situation.

There are three different professional certifications to consider, each of which qualifies a tax advisor to practice with unlimited representation rights before the IRS. This means that in addition to preparing returns, they also are licensed to represent their clients on audits, payments and collection issues, and appeals.

Certified Public Accountants (CPAs)

CPAs have completed coursework in accounting, passed the Uniform CPA Examination, and are licensed by state boards of accountancy (which require that they meet experience and good character standards). Some, but not all, CPAs specialize in tax preparation and planning. You can find complaints about CPAs either by searching records with state boards of accountancy and at Better Business Bureaus.

Enrolled Agents

Enrolled agents are licensed by the Internal Revenue Service after they have passed a three-part examination and a background check. The IRS maintains complaints about enrolled agents on the website of its office for enrollment, and you can also find complaints on the National Association of Enrolled Agents website.

Licensed Tax Attorneys

Licensed attorneys have graduated from law school, passed a state bar exam, and are admitted to the bar in at least one state. Some, but not all, attorneys specialize in tax preparation and planning. Many tax attorneys have completed an additional year of law school study in a master’s program in tax (called a Tax LL.M. degree). Disciplinary actions against attorneys can be found by searching the state bar associations with which the attorney is registered.

How to Select a Tax Advisor or Tax Consultant

No tax advisor with one of the certifications described above is necessarily better than any of the others in all situations. Rather, what matters most is:

  1. How the advisor approaches the tax preparation process, including the specific experience the tax advisor has with issues relevant to your particular financial situation.
  2. Whether you feel comfortable with the tax advisor.
  3. How the advisor structures their fees.

You may be able to screen potential advisors along several of these dimensions based on information you can find about them online; for others, an initial meeting will be critical to determine if the advisor is right for you.

1. Assess your confidence in the quality of a tax advisor's recommendations, as well as their experience.

Here are a few specific factors to consider carefully when assessing the potential quality of a tax advisor's work.

First, you should try to identify a tax advisor who will act ethically and with integrity. Before scheduling a meeting with a potential tax advisor, check to see if the advisor has been subject to any complaints, disciplinary actions, or other ethical infractions.

When meeting with the advisor, be on the lookout for outlandish promises: if an advisor guarantees you a certain refund without having first looked at your returns, you should be wary (any promise that sounds too good to be true probably is). If the advisor suggests taking a position on a tax return that strikes you as overly aggressive (because it is not grounded in your actual financial situation) or if you simply do not understand something the advisor is saying, make sure to ask, and keep asking until you are satisfied with the answer.

Having a tax advisor prepare your returns does not take away your responsibility for the accuracy of your tax return. Of course, an advisor who knowingly takes an improper position on a tax return will face consequences, but it is your return, and you can too.

A good tax advisor also should provide more value than simply filling out your returns. She should help you to structure your finances in an optimal way from a tax perspective. Not every tax advisor has expertise with every nuance of the tax code, and so you’ll want to make sure that the advisor you select has significant experience with the particular issues for which you’re seeking expert advice. Of course, there are certain common issues that every good advisor should know: for example, how to maximize the value and efficacy of your charitable contributions, how to weigh the tax tradeoffs between renting and owning a home, or how to save money for or gift money to family members.

For other less common situations, however, you’ll want an advisor with specific experience. If you own a business or are self-employed, if you work for a startup and own a significant number of stock options, or if some portion of your income is reported on a K-1 (because you are a partner in a business or own shares in an S corporation), you likely will be best served by finding an advisor who has worked with a significant number of clients with these tax issues.

Finally, maintaining the security of your personal information is more important than ever these days, and the inputs for your taxes is some of the most sensitive information you have. There will always be some risk of data breaches, but a good tax advisor will take steps to safeguard your information. Make sure that you ask about how the tax advisor stores your personal information and what methods she uses to communicate with you regarding sensitive topics. You also should ask about whether the advisor has ever been subject to a data breach and what steps the advisor is taking to protect against future ones.

2. Assess your comfort level with the working relationship.

You want to make sure you have a good rapport with your tax advisor, and that you feel like you understand each other. At your first meeting, make sure to bring three years’ worth of old tax returns for your advisor to review. Ask if you missed any deductions, and if your old returns raise any audit flags. Consider the advisor’s responses. Does the advisor seem willing to spend time with you to ask thorough questions to fully understand your situation? Or does she rush through in a way that makes you feel like she might be missing certain issues or nuances? Does the advisor explain herself in a way that is understandable to you, even though you don’t have a tax background? Or does the advisor leave you confused?

A tax advisor may work by herself or be a member of a larger organization or practice. Each approach has its benefits and drawbacks. You can be sure that a solo practitioner will be the one who actually prepares your returns, but it may be harder to reach the advisor during the height of tax season, and the advisor may find it difficult to get a second opinion on tricky issues or issues outside her core areas of expertise. On the other hand, although the collective expertise of a larger practice may exceed that of even a very talented advisor practicing on her own, it may be more difficult to ensure that your return is prepared personally by your advisor.

Finally, think about whether you want to work with a tax advisor who is already part of your social network, or who has been referred by a trusted family member or friend. On the one hand, having the seal of approval of someone you know and trust may help to assure you that the advisor is right for you. On the other hand, consider whether it will be harder to part ways with the advisor down the road if she fails to meet your standards.

3. Evaluate the cost of the tax advice.

The final issue you’ll want to think about is cost. Tax preparation services are a low margin business (particularly with the competition that tax preparers face from low cost software), but you can expect to pay more for tax planning services or advice. The best cost structure is one where the tax advisor charges for her time or for the specific forms that the advisor completes and files. By paying for the advice itself and not a particular outcome, this cost arrangement properly aligns the incentives between your tax advisor and you.

Be wary of compensation structures that create the potential for conflicts of interest between you and and your tax advisor. For example, some tax advisors may try to earn additional revenue from you by selling other services or financial products along with tax preparation.

Ultimately, when it comes to cost, your goal should not be solely to minimize your combined out of pocket cost to the IRS and your advisor for this year’s tax return. Rather, you should take a longer term view, recognizing that good, personalized tax advice can help you to structure your financial life in a tax-efficient way that can pay dividends for years to come.