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5 Questions to Ask Your Tax Preparer/Accountant

Updated on April 12, 2011
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Keith Schroeder writes The Wealthy Accountant blog with 30 years experience in the tax field. He is the tax adviser of Mr. Money Mustache.

When I pick up the phone, the most common words I hear are "What do you charge?" No introduction, nothing. Just a blurted out question. I propose that this is the worst thing to ask first. I don't know who you are, your tax situation, or how much time I must invest to prepare an accurate return for you. If cost is your only concern, I'm not your guy. Besides, you sound like my competition checking out my prices. Note to competitors: My price has nothing to do with yours. Quality of service determines fees.

Think of it this way: You call inquiring about the price of an orange. "One hundred dollars," you are told. "Are you nuts." Click. Too bad you didn't ask a better question. The orange in question is made of 24k gold. Professional services work in much the same way.

When searching for a tax professional, I recommend asking the five following questions in order. Before you get to the cost question, you may already want to search elsewhere.

  1. How long have you been in business/preparing taxes/payroll/bookkeeping? There is nothing wrong hooking up with a new accountant/bookkeeper/payroll service. New businesses should have experienced staff and management. We all need to cut our teeth somewhere. Doing so without experience puts clients at risk. Mistakes are too easy in this profession. The tax code is large, changing, and the tax courts don't always agree with each other. You want at least a few years of real-life, on the job experience.
  2. What professional designations do you have? Licenses? You want a CPA or enrolled agent (EA) handling your tax situation. It doesn't guarantee competence, but they at least have a rudimentary knowledge of taxes.
  3. Are you familiar with my tax situation? Clint Eastwood said a man's gotta know his limitations. He's right. There are certain areas of tax code I am unfamiliar/uncomfortable with. Other area I prefer to avoid. I love individuals and small businesses. I avoid farms. I don't do enough of them to be really good at it, so I pass. Businesses with over 100 employees is more than I feel comfortable handling in my firm. I don't have the staff to give the service a company of this size requires. If you have up to twenty employees, call me; I want to talk.
  4. Are you taking new clients? Why not ask this question first? Because I always have room for one more client, if it is the right client. Asking these questions in order allows me to determine if I am taking new clients.
  5. What do you charge? By this time you and I know if we want to work together. Sometimes I can give you an idea where my fees will fall. Other times I need to sit down and review the file first. I generally charge a flat fee. I determine that fee by how many hours I think it will take me to complete the job.

See, that was easy. A few simple questions allows both of us to set the foundation to a mutually rewarding business relationship. Price is important, but not the only factor. Ask what kind of orange it is before getting a price quote.

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