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CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 08:24 AM   #1
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CPA versus Turbotax

Hi - I have been doing our own taxes on turbotax and have been very happy, but I continue to wonder if hiring a CPA would be worth it. I know that most of you do your own investing instead of using an advisor, and given the posts, many use turbotax or taxcut, so I wondered if you see the benefit of a CPA - at least in the beginning to get you started

Oddly enough, I actually work for a very good CPA firm, but their area of expertise are in businesses and the super rich, so aside from referring me to smaller CPA firms, and helping me research answers to questions I pose that turbotax wasn't able to answer (ie., exemptions for newlyweds who do a primary home sale on 2 properties in less than 3 years, etc). Oh - just to clarify - I'm not an accountant in the CPA firm, but I am the HR person (guess what interview questions I use this time of year!) :

We had a very complicated tax year in 2004 (3 home purchases, 1 sale, 4 schedule Es) and did fine on turbotax...but I wonder if we would have been better off with a CPA...

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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 09:20 AM   #2
 
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

I've been through the same thought process before.

I used to do it with turbotax, but I now use a CPA. Here's why:

1. It makes it a lot less stressful to send all the data to him, and not have to go through all the forms trying to interpret the instructions and decide on the gray area questions.

2. He has saved us thousands of dollars. He showed me how, as a small business owner, I could deduct all health insurance premiums and medical costs.

3. It has only cost $325 a year.

4. The accountant is available for questions throughout the year. That's been quite valuable.

-------------------

When I'm totally retired, and things are simpler, I might go back to doing it myself.

Note that another alternative is to have an accountant do it for one year, perhaps finding some things you missed, then doing it yourself from then on, use the accountant year as a model.
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 09:31 AM   #3
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

With all due respect to the beav, i'll offer a counterpoint.

I only had my taxes done "once", but a close friend is a CPA. Oddly, he never had his taxes in on time. He liked to "push the envelope" with customers returns, and would in fact get them some nice extra money back, but he was increasing the odds of them getting an audit. He really liked audits. A lot of tax guys seem to find the whole thing a challenge.

Doing your own reading and learning can be a pain in the butt, although the answers to any questions you might have are pretty readily available. I've found that learning the tax code as it applies to me helps me make decisions about what I do and dont do financially that benefit me tax-wise. Nobody can know my financial situation better than me, so armed with some tax knowledge, nobody can keep my entire financial situation as optimal as I can.

I guess if I had an enormously complex return, I was working full time, and/or i had absolutely no brains for anything financial, mathematical, or whatever the science is that they use to create tax code, I'd get a CPA.

The horror stories of not being able to reach them near tax time, taxes being sent in late, mistakes and increased audit potentials might keep me from keeping one though.
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 09:41 AM   #4
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

Quote:
Originally Posted by TromboneAl
Note that another alternative is to have an accountant do it for one year, perhaps finding some things you missed, then doing it yourself from then on, use the accountant year as a model.
I think people can learn to be more informed experts on their own personal tax situations, especially if they don't change much year-to-year, than an accountant.
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 09:48 AM   #5
 
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

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Originally Posted by Nords
I think people can learn to be more informed experts on their own personal tax situations, especially if they don't change much year-to-year, than an accountant.
While this is true, a tax accountant is more familar with the changing tax laws and 'mistakes' on forms. It saves me from reading and studying the new tax changes (a pain in the butt) - This is why it literally pays to work together. It should not be this way, but it is.

I am with 'the Beav' on this. It has saved me money in the long run! - Not to mention a lot of frustration.
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 10:01 AM   #6
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

So C-T...has your cpa advised you on what investments to hold and which ones to sell in certain situations to maximize your tax efficiency? Are you taking maximum advantage of the capital gains and qualified dividends tax situation that currently exists? Have you been maximizing your pre and post tax retirement plans?
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 10:08 AM   #7
 
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

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Originally Posted by (Cute Fuzzy Bunny)
So C-T...has your cpa advised you on what investments to hold and which ones to sell in certain situations to maximize your tax efficiency? Are you taking maximum advantage of the capital gains and qualified dividends tax situation that currently exists? Have you been maximizing your pre and post tax retirement plans?

He does not 'manage' my investments. But when I have a specific question in these areas (which I do from time to time), I can pick up the phone throughout the year and discuss it with him anytime.
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 10:10 AM   #8
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

Quote:
3. It has only cost $325 a year
Wow! *Can I have your accountant's phone #? :-) *I've been quoted $1000 - $1500! *Have you guys experienced savings of more than this?

Cute Fuzzy had a good point though -- right now, my husband and I still both work FT (and working 12- hour days!) along with managing the rental properties and fixing up our houses in preparation to be FIRE in 2 1/2 years...it might make sense to at least do it once just to make sure we're not missing anything....but then again, I could probably retire a month earlier by not spending the $1500!

Ok, next post: *Names, phone numbers of accountants who charge less than $500! -- On second thought...I should ask you guys for your accountants' resume and just open up a head hunting business and start partial retirement now! *

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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 10:14 AM   #9
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

Quote:
Originally Posted by Cut-Throat
While this is true, a tax accountant is more familar with the changing tax laws and 'mistakes' on forms. It saves me from reading and studying the new tax changes (a pain in the butt) - This is why it literally pays to work together. It should not be this way, but it is.*

I am with 'the Beav' on this. It has saved me money in the long run!* - Not to mention a lot of frustration.
Every year I spend about 20 minutes reading the latest "save money on your taxes" article. *Maybe there'll be a reason for further research, but usually not. *If TurboTax asks an unfamiliar question, the help files get me right to the IRS pub. *And if everything else fails, there's always this board!

But I'm prejudiced by experience. *

My BIL the CPA would rather spend his firm's time on a high-income tax return (for extra charges & fees) than on someone's middle-of-the-pack plain-vanilla $400 return. *If he got a "small" client, the first thing he'd do is make sure that sufficient estimated tax had been witheld/paid and then file an extension. *Then he'd hand off the return to the newest intern employee to see how they do. *Somewhere around the beginning of May (after they all get back from end-of-season vacation) a supervisor might check the return and call in the client to review the results. *But admittedly he works with a lot of high-net-worth clients whose W-2 Medicare deductions are higher than my AGI ever was.

When I was treasurer for a small non-profit, the first thing "our" CPA did was miss the filing deadline (the IRS sent us a helpful letter pointing that out). *He accused us of not mailing the return in time but recanted when I pointed out that he hadn't even called us for pickup until after the deadline. *I asked him to write the abatement letter and he advised us to hire a lawyer (because he'd already been paid for completing the return). *I asked him for a copy of an abatement letter and, instead of a Word or even a text document, for some reason he sent a TIFF. *We were clearly being told "go away and leave me alone".

So I did three years of tax work for the non-profit. *It took me about 10 man-hours to learn how to do non-profit tax returns the first year, but in subsequent years it was less than a couple hours. *It turns out that the non-profit hadn't been doing W-9s or 1099s to its contractors (and the CPA never asked). *That would have been an additional fee if we'd asked him to do them. *When I did the tax returns, the forms were all online (in Acrobat fill-in-the-blank format). *He had done the more complicated 990 form instead of the smaller 990EZ form, and he had generally overcomplicated things. *In every case my personal labor on the tax returns was far less time & trouble than I spent chasing/catching/debating the CPA.
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 10:21 AM   #10
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

Quote:
Originally Posted by Cut-Throat

He does not 'manage' my investments. But when I have a specific question in these areas (which I do from time to time), I can pick up the phone throughout the year and discuss it with him anytime.
I guess what i was pointing out is that he is not helping you optimize your finances to suit a low tax payment, he is optimizing what you present him with and if you know the questions to ask, he can answer that question.

Knowledge of the tax code and how it impacts my tax situation SPECIFICALLY resulted in my dumping most of my bonds for dividend paying stocks, cranking my wifes 403b up to the max to reduce taxable earned income, and maximizing our Roth IRA's. In the case of the bonds for stocks trade, we were paying taxes on bonds as ordinary income; 0/5/15% for the stock dividends...in our case zero as I have tweaked our earned income low enough for us to fly under the wire almost completely. Putting 1/4 of my wifes gross income into a retirement plan is a little drastic, but makes great sense when you consider the total tax implications. And someone ignorant of tax law probably wouldnt know that a spouse can fund a roth from their wife/husbands earned income.

This is the same argument as the 'financial planner'. Some people dont know, dont want to know, cant grasp it, or are too busy. They're going to hire a pro. Some of the pro's might even be really great and do a super job. The majority of them simply cant do as good of a job that a well read person can do on their own. Definitely not for a few hundred or a thousand bucks.

At least once during tax preparation every year, I learn something, see a new rule, or a tweak to an existing rule that makes me decide to do something different that year to mitigate it. Absent doing it myself, I wouldnt have known about that or known what question to ask my CPA. I sincerely doubt the guy I'm paying $325 to fill out the forms for me is going to spontaneously tell me about it unless it relates to something I just put under his nose.

Capish?
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 10:26 AM   #11
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

I guess this is also diving into my "fishbowl" concerns. If the question is simply "If I present some tax documents to a piece of software or to a human being, will the results be different/better?". Why yes! The human will interpret things differently, take chances, and arrive at different conclusions.

You can make a great case for the CPA in that situation.

In the broader context of applying learning of the tax code to how you make and spend money, you may get some help from the CPA. Not as much as you'll get from yourself.

In the fishbowl, one answer. In the ocean...something else perhaps.
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 10:29 AM   #12
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

My one year of using a CPA was mixed. *It was a member of my spouse's family and I used him because "everybody in the family does".

He did find one thing that I had never thought of. *I was so used to getting refunds from the state and having to treat them as income on the following year's 1040 that I didn't know you could do the opposite if you had owed the state.

But, and this is why I do it myself now, is that he only figured it out as a joint return. *His reason was that it always works out the best that way. *Well, I live in a state where combining the state returns can be a lot more than keeping them separate (state requires the same filing status as federal). *When I asked him to figure it separately, it was about $400 less!
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 10:48 AM   #13
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

Sometimes it boils down to where you want to allocate your time.

If you have plenty of time on your own and enjoy keeping up with the tax laws and do your own tax returns, that's a beautiful thing.

But, most people don't have the time nor do some want to keep current with tax laws, they don't want to hem their own pants, change their own car oil, do their own plumbing, etc.

I've seen some tax answers on this board that are scary and people stuggling for days over a relatively simple tax issue. People guess at the answer, rely on H&R Block advice, or even worse, call the IRS to get an "answer."

You can't spend 20 minutes a year reviewing the tax laws or plugging some numbers in a tax program and think you know everything you need to know, even in your own situation. You may end up doing things correctly in your own little bubble, but you end up missing more important issues outside the bubble.
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 10:59 AM   #14
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

Quote:
Originally Posted by retire@40
Sometimes it boils down to where you want to allocate your time.

If you have plenty of time on your own and enjoy keeping up with the tax laws and do your own tax returns, that's a beautiful thing.

But, most people don't have the time nor do some want to keep current with tax laws, they don't want to hem their own pants, change their own car oil, do their own plumbing, etc.
I'd be delighted to pay people to do the above tasks. And I'd rather spend my beautiful time surfing.

The problem I have is the "hassle factor"-- the amount of time & effort it takes to schedule the visit, have one of us drive there, wait for our turn, and get it done. That's if they show up. That's assuming that it gets done correctly the first time, let alone gets done as well as I could have done it on my own.

Then there's the "upselling" inherent in every seemingly low-priced offer.

Quote:
Originally Posted by retire@40
I've seen some tax answers on this board that are scary and people stuggling for days over a relatively simple tax issue. People guess at the answer, rely on H&R Block advice, or even worse, call the IRS to get an "answer."
You mean that people will spend a lot of time and a little effort to obtain free advice?

Acting on free advice may not be such a good idea, but becoming educated on an issue BEFORE asking the professional is a great idea. You'll notice that I spent about two weeks consulting this board on kids & IRAs before I checked with a CPA.

Quote:
Originally Posted by retire@40
You can't spend 20 minutes a year reviewing the tax laws or plugging some numbers in a tax program and think you know everything you need to know, even in your own situation.* You may end up doing things correctly in your own little bubble, but you end up missing more important issues outside the bubble.
Having done so, I don't agree with your assessment of my tax situation. But you don't have to take my word for it. Learn how to do your taxes and then compare the results to your CPA's version. If you're changing the things you do from one year to the next, then it might make sense to use a CPA. But if you have the same W-2s, 1099-Rs, rental property, and the same retirement portfolio transactions year after year... not much is gonna change.

If I'm doing the taxes correctly for my own situation, then why in the world would I care about anything "outside the bubble"? I'm not trying to become an expert on anyone else's taxes but my own.
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 11:03 AM   #15
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

Retire@40, what do you estimate to be the price point for a return where the tax preparer does more than fill in the forms, where they actually look at your broader financial situation and offer advice on how to optimize tax strategy?


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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 11:18 AM   #16
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

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Originally Posted by Nords
...If you're changing the things you do from one year to the next, then it might make sense to use a CPA.* But if you have the same W-2s, 1099-Rs, rental property, and the same retirement portfolio transactions year after year... not much is gonna change.

If I'm doing the taxes correctly for my own situation, then why in the world would I care about anything "outside the bubble"?* I'm not trying to become an expert on anyone else's taxes but my own.
You just made my point. *Just because nothing changes (in your bubble) in that you have the same W-2, 1099-R, and rental property, it doesn't mean there isn't a new strategy to follow that could help you outside that bubble. *For example, if you have always filed a schedule E for your rentals (which is perfectly correct within the bubble), have you thought (outside the bubble) of setting up a trust or limited partnership or LLC for those properties and what the tax ramifications are depending on whether it's a grantor trust, QTIP, CRAT, etc?

Sometimes, just doing what you have always been doing may be fine, but there may be a better way that you have not thought of because you are not immersed in the area of taxation as someone who does it day in and day out (and is good at it).
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 11:32 AM   #17
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

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Originally Posted by (Cute Fuzzy Bunny)
what do you estimate to be the price point for a return where the tax preparer does more than fill in the forms, where they actually look at your broader financial situation and offer advice on how to optimize tax strategy?
It depends on the complexity of the situation. But that's part of the "value" of a CPA. Sometimes the strategy may be to keep doing what you are doing. Sometimes it may be to do something different for one year, sometimes for many years. So you can't just sit down with a CPA for an hour and get all your problems resolved in that hour. It may take a lifelong relationship for that CPA to get to know you so he can understand your risk tolerence, aggressiveness, how detailed-oriented you are, what your real long-term goals are, etc.

This is the part that most people miss. A tax return to the average person is some paper with a staple in it, or some 0's and 1's over a cable line these days. Many times it's more than that. I would equate it with this ER thing we talk about here every day. Just because you may open an IRA, doesn't mean it's the best IRA for you and it certainly doesn't mean you are all set for retirement.
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 11:41 AM   #18
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

So how about a ballpark? Do you get this extensive service for a $325 fee? A thousand? Two thousand a year? 1% a year? $200 an hour? How many hours would one need to spend in a year?

Presume the "typical" ER with a million or two in a fairly diversified portfolio, owns their own home, married, one or two kids. 20-40 years to live off their money.

Is that the typical ER or are there too many outliers?

How many CPA's run into people with this sort of profile, such that they'd be experienced in the implications?
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 11:49 AM   #19
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

Quote:
call the IRS to get an "answer."
Assume you are referring to that survey I remember seeing that reviewed answers given on the IRS help line and found them incorrect about 40% of the time.

When I had a company, I did it on my own for a while, then I started paying. It was convenient because the same tax guy did the partnership return and my personal one. Otherwise I was always stressed out getting it done, because he always did extensions that made me scramble around at the last minute. It was cheap enough for a while, but by the year I quit, moved, and sold my house it had gotten to be over $600. And more and more he was off-loading all the "small" returns onto different random employees or freelancers. When the one lady doing my returns wrote off $250k of CG instead of $500k on my home sale, I knew I had to take things into my own hands once more... That mistake would have cost me, what, $37,500? if I hadn't been paying attention.

Now I only have my bank and brokerage 1099s to process, so I wouldn't consider paying. But since I don't really have a head for it anymore, if my situation were more complex I would probably still hire a tax preparer (a different one!).

I do wonder what money people end up leaving 'on the table' either way.. would be an interesting experiment.

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CFB is right; the crowd that has already ER'd but is not super-rich may have a hard time finding a CPA who is attuned to their long-term needs. I think the operating principle of most is "pay less taxes this year" and doesn't go much beyond that. You can't exactly fault that approach; the tax code can always change, so you may not want to contort your financial behavior based on assumptions too far out in the future to properly assess.
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax
Old 02-05-2006, 12:07 PM   #20
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Re: CPA versus Turbotax

Quote:
Originally Posted by (Cute Fuzzy Bunny)
So how about a ballpark?* Do you get this extensive service for a $325 fee?* A thousand?* Two thousand a year?* 1% a year?* $200 an hour?* How many hours would one need to spend in a year?
You're a persistent little bunny aren't you?

It's like saying my car is broken, how much will it cost to fix.

Ballpark (and we're not talking Fenway-size) you may be looking at $1K a year +/- $300.

Then again, with all your questions throughout the year, your bill may be closer to $2K.
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