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How to Tell If You Need a Human to Help Do Your Taxes

When you need a human, when you don't — and a quiz to help you decide.
March 12, 2020
Income Taxes, Personal Taxes, Taxes
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It’s never been easier to do your own taxes, with software getting more user-friendly each year. But as your financial picture grows more complex, it’s perfectly sensible to wonder if you’re missing something and should get someone to prepare and help file your taxes.

Here are some scenarios that can clarify whether you ought to hire a professional tax preparer or keep going it alone.

When it’s probably OK to DIY with tax software

You’re a steady Eddie

If all of your income came from your employer, you’re not itemizing on your return and nothing complicated is going on in your life, tax software could be a good choice, says Marianela Collado, a certified financial planner at Tobias Financial Advisors in Plantation, Florida.

Consistency is also key, says Karl Frank, a certified financial planner and president of A&I Financial Services in Englewood, Colorado. If your tax situation is the same as it was last year and you’re not taking many deductions, then software may be a great tool, he says.

You understand what the software is asking you

“If you have some knowledge and you’re comfortable navigating through the prompts and understanding the questions, then I think it’s OK,” Collado says.

However, if, for example, the software asks whether you contributed to your employer’s 401(k) plan, and you don’t know the answer or don’t know why it’s asking the question, you probably need to meet with a human tax preparer, she says.

» Know where you stand?  Our free tax calculator can help

When it’s probably time to get help filing your taxes

You have a business or a side gig

Freelancers, independent contractors and people with side gigs should hire a human tax preparer, Frank says. There are extra forms to fill out, along with many rules about the right way to report your income and even more rules about how to handle your expenses.

If this is you, then “it’s really advantageous to have a human being to talk to at least once a year for an hour or two — you may be paying more [tax] than you need to,” he says.

>>MORE: Learn how a Schedule C works and whether you have to file one

You don’t understand the forms you get in the mail

If the tax forms landing in your mailbox are completely foreign to you, take them to a human preparer. For instance, Collado says many people are thrown by something called a K-1, which may arrive if they invest in certain types of companies.

“They don’t know what to do with it,” she says. “They should have a CPA. There are special rules on how to treat those things.”

>>MORE: See our list of IRS forms everyone should understand

You actually want advice

Tax preparation involves a lot of data entry, but many people want guidance and help with planning too, Frank says.

“A lot of the logic can be handled by computers. A lot of the wisdom you can only get from a person,” he says.

Collado knows what he means.

“I’ve seen it time and time again, where either someone’s been doing their own tax return or they have a friend do it. No one has asked them about being able to set up a Roth IRA. No one’s talked to them about what it means to maximize 401(k) contributions. No one is telling them that maybe it’s time to make estimated tax payments,” she says. “Two or three points that they recommend could be life-changing.”

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