Aren’t All Tax Returns Created Equal?

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

February 7, 2014

There is a belief by many people that a tax return is a bit of a commodity – basically you are going to get the same results no matter if you or anybody else prepares the return.  If that were true, your only goal would be to find the absolute cheapest tax preparer in town (or do it yourself).

A number of years ago Money magazine used to annually send out the same hypothetical family’s tax return to be prepared by 45-50 tax preparers across the country.  The surprising result was that it was rare in any year to have even two tax returns prepared the same way.  The most recent one that I could find resulted in only 25 percent of the preparers coming within $1,000 of the theoretical correct answer.  That means 75 percent missed the mark by more than $1,000.  This certainly speaks to the complexity of the tax code, and why you really need to have someone with as much relevant experience, education, and training as possible to navigate the tax terrain.  You may think you are being savvy by saving $200-$300 by getting a deal on your tax preparation, but what did you get?  Maybe you overpaid your tax by a $1,000 in the process of saving $300.  And how would YOU ever know.

When it comes to hiring someone to prepare your returns, credentials are not everything, but they certainly are a measuring stick of the education, training, testing, and commitment required.  Here are your options:

Do-It-Yourself Software (i.e. TurboTax) – Tax software, whether for professionals or amateurs is certainly a requisite tool to bring any measure of accuracy or efficiency to preparing a tax return.  Computers are quick at math and very accurate at crunching numbers (that is the part that is “guaranteed” to be accurate by do-it-yourself software providers), but if you provide the wrong input, or your software is not even programmed to ask you or accept all the variables you might need, then you will get a wrong answer every time (that part they don’t guarantee).

In addition, without an understanding of the forms and tax law, you will have no idea if there is a glaring error staring you in the face when you are ready to submit the forms.  I have seen countless returns butchered through the use of tax preparation software over the years.  I am currently amending three years of tax returns for a family that overpaid their taxes by $1,000 a year for the past twelve years due to a simple mistake that the software was not able to point out to them.  Unfortunately the statute of limitations has run out on the first nine years and they cannot get a refund at this point.

RTRP -“Registered Tax Return Preparer” – This is the current basic credential required by the IRS to prepare tax returns for pay.  There is no formal high school or college education required, no professional class and exam process to become licensed, and no continuing education requirement.  You just pay $65 to the IRS and you can prepare tax returns professionally!  This designation was created in the last few years with the intent of having a basic exam and some continuing education, but the testing and education requirements have been put on hold pending legal challenges to the requirements. RTRPs have limited practice rights before the IRS.

CRTP – “CTEC Registered Tax Preparer”– (CTEC stands for CA Tax Education Council) – This is the current basic credential required by California to prepare tax returns for pay.  Again, there is no formal high school or college education required.  There is a 60 hour professional class (equivalent to three or four semester units in college – one class) that is offered by many providers in person, on the internet or by self-study with an exam on the material covered.  There is 20 hours of continuing education each year, and a $5,000 bond.  This is the license that the vast majority of preparers hold in California at chains such as H&R Block, Liberty Tax Service, and Jackson Hewitt.  CRTPs also have limited practice rights before the IRS.

EA – “Enrolled Agent” – This is the highest of the two designations offered by the IRS, and EAs can practice in any state.  Again there is no formal high school or college education required, and there is no required professional class (although an intensive prep course is generally taken).  There is a 10.5 hour proctored three-part exam with 100 question each – one on individual, one on business returns, and one on practice procedures and ethics with essentially 24 hours of continuing education each year.  EAs have unlimited practice rights before the IRS.

CPA – “Certified Public Accountant” – Licensed by each state (although there is reciprocity to practice with nearly every state now).  California requires a college degree with 150 semester units (five years) including 24 semester units of accounting and 24 semester units of business related courses in taxation, economics, finance, management, etc., 10 semester units of ethics, and another 20 semester units of accounting studies which a masters of taxation or masters of accountancy would satisfy.  You must then work for a year under the direct supervision of a CPA.  If you want to be able to sign audit reports, you have to have 500 supervised audit hours.  You must also pass a 14 hour proctored four-part national exam and then a CA ethics exam.  California also requires a LiveScan background check and fingerprinting of all applicants.  There is essentially 40 hours of continuing education required each year for California CPAs.  CPAs have unlimited practice rights before the IRS.  Although CPAs are trained in, and can do a lot more than just your tax returns, most small CPA firms focus on tax preparation.

Attorney – Licensed by each state. We won’t discuss the requirements to become an attorney, as attorneys rarely prepare tax returns.  Some attorneys that specialize in tax will prepare tax returns, although most of those are focused on estate tax returns.  Attorneys that do prepare tax returns will often have obtained a CPA license also.  Attorneys have unlimited practice rights before the IRS.

Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog.

IRS Circular 230 Notice: To the extent this article concerns tax matters, it is not intended to be used and cannot be used by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

Advertisements

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: