If Timothy Geithner can't get his taxes right, what hope is there for the rest of us?
I'm poking fun at the failure of the new U.S. Treasury Secretary, later corrected, to pay past self-employment taxes. But I am dead serious about how the growing complexity of our tax code forces millions of Americans to pay for help.
Last year, about 60 percent of federal income tax returns were filed by paid preparers. I expect the number will increase this year given the multitude of tax law changes, many temporary, that Congress passed as part of energy, housing, pension protection and economic recovery bills, among others.
Although I understand tax laws well enough to do my own return, I still want help from tax-preparation software that saves me hours of drudgery and guarantees all the math computations are correct. Quality software choices include Intuit's TurboTax, (www.turbotax.com), H&R Block's TaxCut (www.taxcut.com), CCH's CompleteTax (www.completetax.com) and 2nd Story Sofware's TaxACT (www.taxact.com).
I use TurboTax Home and Business, which handles quickly and accurately all tax aspects of my at-home writing business, including calculating home-office deductions, self-employment taxes and maximum allowable contributions to my self-employed 401(k) plan. Software generally comes in different versions, depending on how simple or complicated your return is, and the simplest versions - including that of TurboTax - are sometimes free.
Your choice if you use software, whether Web-based or desktop-based, may well boil down to personal taste. I like TurboTax's plain-English "interviews," the questions the software asks you for the information it needs to fill out your return (among the relevant questions for many people this year, did you lose a job or your home to foreclosure, situations that could entitle you to tax relief). It's easy to work on your return, stop and come back where you left off.
You can if you want see the tax forms being filled out as you answer a question. You also have access to an online "Live Community" of tax experts and experienced TurboTax users who can answer your questions.
If you're not comfortable with computers or simply prefer live human help - even if it's just to double check a return prepared by using software - I recommend you go with experience and know-how.
"Unless you are tracking tax developments every day, chances are you're not aware of all the changes that have taken effect," said Mildred Carter, senior federal tax analyst for tax publisher CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business.
Therefore, it's a good idea to check whether a preparer belongs to an organization that promotes continuing education, such as your state's Board of Accountancy or Institute of CPAs, or the National Association of Enrolled Agents (www.naea.org). Seek also recommendations from friends and business acquaintances.
To avoid surprises, discuss ahead of time how you will be billed (such as by the hour or type of return). You can save time -- and money -- by being prepared.
"New clients should bring their prior-year tax return. It is information that we need," said Robert M. Moore, Jr., a certified public accountant in Suffolk, Va.
When meeting with your tax preparer, also bring original tax documents and forms, such as W-2s and 1099s, Moore advises. If you sold securities or other property, know the dates you bought and sold them and for how much.
If you bought, sold or refinanced a property, bring the closing statement. If you have depreciable property, have the depreciation schedule available. And be on time for your meeting - your preparer is probably quite busy this time of year.