Tax season is swiftly approaching, and after the roller coaster of 2020, this might be the year to get extra help filing your return.
The coronavirus pandemic saw many changes to the tax code that could impact filers who generally would have had a straightforward return, potentially complicating your return.
"For the average taxpayer, if their head isn't spinning, I don't know what else we can add to the mix," said Megan Gorman, an attorney and managing partner at Chequers Financial Management in San Francisco.
Because of those changes, it might be a good idea to establish a relationship with a tax preparer such as an accountant or CPA, an IRS enrolled agent, or someone who holds a preparer tax identification number with the IRS.
When doing your taxes yourself makes sense
To be sure, many people will still benefit from using online tax-filing software, often available for free or low-cost, despite the events of 2020.
"The online software [programs] are really good," said Adrienne Ross, a certified financial planner and founder of Clear Insight Financial Planning LLC in Spokane, Washington. "They update them every year, they stay up with the tax law."
In addition, the step-by-step approach used by many online tax-preparing platforms helps educate taxpayers that use them, according to Susan Greenhalgh, an accredited financial counselor who runs Mind Your Money LLC in Rhode Island.
"If you have the desire to really get connected to how taxes work and maybe even save yourself some money down the road by doing something differently, you can do that," she said.
"TurboTax has Covid specific guidance to help with the impacts of 2020 like unemployment or claiming a recovery rebate credit," said Lisa Greene-Lewis, a CPA and tax expert for TurboTax, in an email, adding that TurboTax also has services for self-employed individuals and businesses.
Customers can also video connect with a CPA or tax expert to have questions answered or get taxes reviewed, or fully hand over their return to a professional, she said.
Still, there are times when financial experts recommend you go beyond online software for help filing your taxes.
For individuals, that may include changes such as getting married or having a baby. In addition, if you have investments such as stocks and bonds, have capital gains, itemize deductions, contribute to charity, have major medical expenses or are a homeowner, it may be time to start working with a tax professional.
A good rule of thumb is that if you need to file any IRS Schedule A through F tax forms, it's probably time to start working with a tax expert, according to Sheneya Wilson, CPA and founder of Fola Financial in New York.
"If you trigger any of those schedules, you should consult a CPA because that's when tax codes can become a lot more complex," Wilson said. "With businesses especially, they tend to overpay because they are unfamiliar with rules behind how to deduct against that income."
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Even if you like to do your taxes on your own but aren't sure you've done everything correctly, it might be worth it to enlist a tax expert to go over your return before you file.
"There's always going to be a benefit to having a person you can talk to and to run your numbers by," said Anjali Jariwala, a CFP, CPA and founder of Fit Advisors in Torrance, California.
Covid has created some specific tax changes
The CARES Act passed in March also offered some coronavirus relief that will impact taxes in the coming years for some, and the most recent coronavirus package extended some tax provisions.
For example, if you drew down a 401(k) plan retirement account due to Covid, the usual penalty was waived and taxes can be spread over the next three years.
"If you are just going to a regular tax preparation shop where you don't have the same preparer year in, year out, how are you going to make sure this is done correctly on your tax return?" Gorman said.
If you were unemployed at any point last year, didn't get a stimulus check and need to apply for a recovery rebate credit or are a small business that applied for the Paycheck Protection Program, enlisting a tax expert could be a huge benefit as these things could impact your taxes this year and in the future.
Justifying the cost
Cost is usually a big factor in what kind of tax preparation services filers choose, and there are a wide range available.
If you have a simple return, you may be able to file for free through the IRS and online services such as CreditKarma, H&R Block, TurboTax and more, though some of these firms may charge extra for a state return.
Many of these companies also offer low-cost options for tax filing.
For example, H&R Block and TurboTax online tax preparation starts at $29.95 and $90, respectively, though it can be more costly for premium services such as chatting with an expert online.
Working with an accountant is generally more expensive. The average fee for an accountant to prepare and submit a Form 1040 with the standard deduction and a state return is $176, and a Form 1040 with itemized personal deductions and a state return is $273, according to the National Society of Accountants. More complicated returns can cost even more – the average cost for a Form 1040 with a Schedule C for small business income and one state return is $457.
Of course, the cost of an experienced tax planner can help you fully take advantage of everything you're eligible for, including credits, deductions and more.
"You might've missed out on a credit that's worth more than the fee you would've paid," said Luis Rosa, a CFP and enrolled agent and founder of Build a Better Financial Future in Henderson, Nevada.
In addition, if you enlist a tax planner now, you can and should continue to work with them throughout the year.
"Ask what other services they offer for planning — they can be incredibly valuable," said Gorman, adding that people often take an active approach to investing and a passive approach to tax planning, when it should be the other way around.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.