Before COVID-19, doing your taxes often meant carrying a box of paperwork to someone’s office for a long, in-person visit. For many people, that’s no longer a viable option in this era of social distancing. But there are still ways to get your taxes done safely — if you know what to look for.
1. Ask if the preparer has a secure portal
A secure portal is a dedicated channel through which you and your tax preparer can upload PDFs or pictures of receipts, W-2s and other tax documents, or even review and sign your completed tax return. “People can review the work that we've done and then sign their tax return … they never have to step foot into the office,” says Stephanie Gandsey, marketing director at DHJJ Financial Advisors in Naperville, Illinois. TurboTax and H&R Block offer similar options.
Ask about the type of portal your tax preparer is using. Google Drive and Dropbox are not secure options for sending documents that contain your Social Security number and other personal information, Gandsey says.
Know how long your information stays in the portal, too. Michael Cody, a certified public accountant at Lieb, Cody & Co. in Torrance, California, says he usually has only seven days to download documents that clients send through his company’s portal — after that, the link disappears. Clients have around 30 days to download documents he sends to them, and the portal tracks activity. “Anytime someone downloads that document I sent them, I get an email back to me saying so-and-so downloaded it,” he says.
2. Look for drop-off services
If you don't want to deal with digitizing documents, many tax preparers provide drop-off locations. Cody’s firm, for example, has a secured lobby with a mail slot into which clients can put documents. “They just come in, we point them to the box, and they throw [them] right in,” he says.
Some Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, and Tax Counseling for the Elderly, or TCE, clinics also provide drop-off services. These clinics offer free tax preparation for people with low incomes, disabilities, language barriers or who are 60 or older. You might find one in your area at irs.treasury.gov/freetaxprep/ or by searching online for "VITA drop off" plus your city.
3. Schedule a virtual visit
Many tax preparers are holding face-to-face meetings with clients on video-conference platforms to go over tax returns, answer questions and address issues and opportunities. TurboTax, H&R Block and TaxAct also offer packages and upgrades that provide virtual meetings with tax pros if you’re using software to do your own taxes.
“We used to say face time,” Gandsey says. “Everyone wants to get in front, sit right across the desk. And what we've really switched to now is attention — giving the client attention. And attention doesn't have to be in person.”
In some ways, virtual meetings can be a better experience, she adds. Tax preparers can show clients exactly what documents they’re looking at on the screen and even highlight portions to look at. “I think it's actually made it easier for a lot of people,” she says.
Scheduling is often more flexible, with less wait time before meetings, Cody says. “I can actually get in front of clients quicker now. I want to know what keeps you up at night. Maybe I can help you out. The sooner I can put that to bed, the better.”