Tax time can bring good things, usually in the form of a nice tax return, or perhaps some bad news, with a bill you now owe to the IRS. The tax return process becomes increasingly complex as life situations multiply – children, divorce, mortgage payments, rental properties, small businesses, etc. To take away some of the pressure of preparing your own taxes, many opt to take advantage of tax preparation companies.

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Best Things about Tax Preparation Companies

Tax time can bring good things, usually in the form of a nice tax return, or perhaps some bad news, with a bill you now owe to the IRS. The tax return process becomes increasingly complex as life situations multiply – children, divorce, mortgage payments, rental properties, small businesses, etc. To take away some of the pressure of preparing your own taxes, many opt to take advantage of tax preparation companies.

Using a Tax Preparation Company

There are many benefits in turning your tax return over to the professionals. Not only will you have fewer headaches as you try to sort through the math, but you’ll enjoy more time not being bogged down by required paperwork. The best things about tax preparation companies include the following:

Remove Your Own Burden

If you have an increasingly complex tax situation thanks to a small business or itemized deductions, a tax professional can reduce your own struggles immensely. After all, the professional has probably seen just about every tax situation imaginable and their knowledge likely surpasses yours. Rather than learning how to navigate the complex and ever changing tax code, turn it all over to the professionals and enjoy the peace of mind that brings.

Tax Advice

There are many complicated aspects of a tax return once you start looking at possible deductions and additional credits. A tax professional can walk you through each possibility and advise you on which deductions you’re qualified for and where you might be able to take an additional credit. Your tax professional may offer some tax planning services as well. This would give you some ideas about how to use your money and deductions for the next tax year to maximize your income.

Reduce the Chance of Errors

Errors are common on tax returns. So common, in fact, that the IRS keeps a list of errors to watch for. The top errors include things like entering amounts in the wrong section or in the wrong line, poor calculations of taxable income and simple computation errors. If you make a mistake on your tax return, you are at fault and your mistake may create an additional tax liability in the form of a penalty or a fee.

While it is still possible that mistakes can happen with the professionals, there is a reduced chance of these common errors and the professional tax service often adds a layer of protection services as well, . It is always necessary to look carefully over your prepared return to double-check the professional. After all, even with the extra safeguard, you are still the liable party.

Tax Preparation Fees May Be Deductible

Provided you meet certain eligibility requirements, you may be able to deduct the cost of preparing this year’s tax return on next year’s tax form. Your deduction may include not only the fees you paid to the tax preparation specialist, but also the miles you drove to his or her office and the postage you bought to mail the forms. Your filing expenses are considered a “miscellaneous” deduction and are deductible on Tax Form 1040 Schedule A.

How Do I File My Taxes?

You have options when it comes to filing your taxes. On one hand, you can do all of the work yourself using the original paper forms. On the other, you have the option to hire a professional to complete your taxes and help you create a tax plan for the future. Fortunately, there are some options in the middle ground as well that provide tax assistance, simply the filing process and also save you a bit of money. The most common tax preparation options include:

  • The original paper tax forms
  • Tax software and online tax programs
  • Tax preparation services
  • Professional tax preparation

Deciding which method to use depends heavily on the content of your taxes, how comfortable you are with very specific math and details and the amount of money and time you have available to file.

Paper Tax Forms

The paper forms provided by the IRS are the least expensive form of tax preparation. These forms are free and the only expense you’ll have is the postage to mail them off when you complete them. Your biggest advantage of filing by hand is the closeness of the process. You will calculate every number and learn virtually every detail of the tax code as it applies to you.

The disadvantages are the amount of time these calculations can take and the possibility of making a mistake. Filing a paper return may be free, but it also requires a longer wait for processing, which means a longer wait for your refund.

Filing a paper tax return makes the most sense if you have an uncomplicated tax situation. If you are taking the standard deduction and have only one or two W-2s to enter, the paper forms will walk you through those steps in a straightforward manner. Once you start itemizing deductions and dealing with more complex situations, the paper required multiplies as the forms grow more complex. That may be a good time to look at some of the other options available.

Tax Software and Online Tax Programs

The middle ground of tax preparation is software. You’re not dealing with a professional who can answer every question, but you’re also not looking at twenty to thirty pieces of paper to be filled out by hand. Tax software can be a program that is run through your computer, but in most cases these are now online tax programs.

The advantage of the tax software, online or otherwise, is that it typically costs less than $100 and it does most of the work for you. Using the tax software you simply enter the numbers from your various tax documents and the software performs the calculations and puts things on the right line on the forms.

While easy to use, there are some disadvantages as well. You may be treated to an “upsell” unwillingly – you paid $50 for the tax software only to learn that filing is an additional $39 and additional assistance is another $99. Or you start a “free” tax return only to discover you don’t meet the criteria for free and now owe $60 if you want to file the return.

Another possible disadvantage of the online tax preparation software is the timing involved. While you do save time over the pencil and paper methods of filing, you are still likely to spend a significant chunk of time learning how to use the software and finding the right numbers for the program. You also run the risk of missing something or not understanding a possible deduction because so many of the calculations in the software are done behind the scenes.

Online tax preparation has grown in popularity because it is such a nice middle ground. The burden of preparation is still on you, but you have significant help with your filing. You can work step-by-step through the filing process and many of the top tax filing software options have tips and frequently asked questions to try and help you through the tougher spots.

Tax Preparation Services

There are many tax preparation companies that aren’t individual accountants or specialists, but rather companies that hire preparers with financial knowledge to assist you in filing. These tax preparation services can be found in storefronts or even in their own cubicle inside larger stores.

The biggest advantage of these tax preparation services is that you can get an advance on your refund and you don’t have to do most of the heavy lifting. By using the service, someone else will enter the numbers into specialized software for you. Many also offer you a tax refund advance if you use their services.

The disadvantage of these services is that they charge you a hefty fee, especially if you plan to take an advance on your return rather than waiting for the IRS to process your refund. Additionally, these tax services use software that is almost identical to the tax preparation software you can on your own. You’re basically paying a big price for convenience.

Tax preparation services are convenient, especially if you are desperate for funds and could use the refund advance. The fees associated with this convenience are often not very well documented. It’s easy to pay hundreds of dollars to get an advance on your return. If you skip the advance you save money and wind up only waiting a week or two for the full refund amount.

While some tax preparation services may offer advice and answer questions, these services often spring up right at tax time and pay their tax preparers seasonal wages. You may luck into having highly educated preparers or you may not. Tax service reviews may help you determine the best companies to work with. All tax preparation companies are not created equally, and the tax service reviews can help you determine which of them offer the best services for your money.

Professional Tax Preparation

If you hire a real pro to handle your taxes you are going to do far less work than with any other option. You’re also going to spend quite a bit more. The advantage of working with a professional is that you don’t have to do much of anything. You bring the required documents and hand them to the professional. That individual does all of the work on your behalf;and you simply check the end result and pay your fee. There is considerably less time and stress involved.

There are some disadvantages, of course. A professional preparation service can be expensive, often running close to $1,000 to prepare your taxes for the year. This fee is deductible if you itemize your deductions, however. You also will be very removed from the process, which means you trust someone else to handle your money. While you may be adding a buffer by working with the professional, you still are liable for the tax return with the IRS and you may not know much about what you’ve just filed.

Using a professional does have additional long-term benefits, however. If you work with the same professional every year, he or she will have additional knowledge of your individual tax situation and can offer financial guidance and tax planning for the coming year.

Working with a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) will give you additional peace of mind. You will be working with a professional who understands the tax code and liability. This is especially true if you are filing both personal and business taxes. Every tax situation is different and while software tries to cover all of the most common variants, only a professional can work with you to be sure you’re fully covered. But that level of protection and confidence can come with a heavy price tag.

How to File Taxes Online

Learning how to file your own taxes is a life skill that also offers you freedom from expensive tax professionals and leaves you in control of your own funds. While there is always the option to dig through the IRS publications and learn how to file by hand, most learn how to file taxes online using one of the many websites and software options available for this very thing.

Decide Where You’ll File

If you have a moderate or complicated tax situation involving itemized deductions, rental properties or a small business, you will likely find more success with more robust tax preparation software.

You will pay to file using these services, and the pay scale goes up along with the complexity of your tax situation. But generally speaking, if you do not own your own small business, you can expect to pay less than $50 to work with the software and file your own taxes. Small business owners can use the software as well and expect to pay less than $200 to file both personal and business taxes.

If you earn less than $66,000 per year, don’t own a home and don’t plan to itemize your deductions, you may be able to file your taxes online directly with the IRS. There is a way to file your taxes for free using the IRS taxpayer portal. If you meet the criteria, you will be directed through the IRS website to one of the online tax preparation websites that will allow filing taxes online for free.

This is an area where tax service reviews may come in handy. There are many tax websites out there, but they are certainly not all created equal. Be sure to read tax service reviews to see the experiences of others and determine which tax preparer meets your standards.

Gather Documentation

Whether you are filing for free or expecting to pay for the service, you won’t be able to file until you have your required documentation. These documents typically include:

  • Your Social Security Number and the Social Security Number for your children and dependents.
  • Form W-2 from every company you worked for during the tax year.
  • Form 1099 if you performed contract services during the year.
  • Form 1099 if you won a significant amount of money gambling.
  • Form 1098 which details how much you spend in mortgage interest and taxes if you own a home.
  • Form 1098-E documenting the amount you paid in Student Loan interest.
  • Other forms if you have an HAS, rental income, childcare costs or other deductions.
  • If you are filing your taxes and using the standard deduction, you will likely need only your income documentation.

Enter Your Information

One of the nicest things about filing your taxes online is how the software guides you through the relevant information. Each screen will ask you to enter information and there is often a Frequently Asked Question area where you can get more information if you aren’t sure what to enter or if you are missing a document.

Work your way through the various screens and check to see if there are any possibilities you might have overlooked. Once you have entered everything, you are close to filing.

Finalize Your Return

The online tax software you are using will likely prompt you to double-check your numbers and be sure that everything is entered correctly. Once you have done that, it will take you through a series of checks before asking you for payment (if necessary) and filing your return.

One of the questions the return will ask is how you want to pay your balance to the IRS or how you want to get your refund. Entering the information for direct deposit will often get your refund much faster than would be the case with a paper check and there is less chance for the check to be lost or stolen.

Finally, you will submit your return through the tax preparation software and you will be finished! The IRS will accept your return if everything is filled out correctly (which it should be if you followed the instructions in the software) and you can expect your refund within two or three weeks, sometimes even more quickly.

Tax time can be exciting if you are expecting a large return, but it can also be tedious. Filing your tax return every year requires quite a few documents and a healthy amount of patience. There are many good options for filing income taxes, and choosing the right one is simply a matter of time, ability and personal preference.