11 Signs That It's Time To Find A New Tax Professional

By Kelly Phillip Erb, Forbes Staff

Earlier this week, I got a call from a taxpayer who couldn't find his old tax returns. He had called up his accountant to see if she had kept a copy (she hadn't). What's more, she had no advice for him about what to do next. The conversation was more than a little concerning. While you can't expect your tax professional to be a miracle worker, helping taxpayers negotiate tax jams - including those problems that taxpayers create for themselves - is typically part of the gig. Competition is fierce for the more than 50% of taxpayers - tens of millions - who use a preparer at tax time. That doesn't include the numbers of tax advisors and tax professionals who don't prepare returns but instead, like me, are professional planners and/or problem solvers. But not all tax professionals are created equal. It's important to seek out a tax professional that you like and trust. It's equally important to know when it's time to walk away. Here are 11 signs that it's time to seek out a new tax professional:
  1. Your tax pro won't return your phone calls or emails.

    I'm not a fan of tax preparers with shops that pop up on street corners during tax season and then go missing for half the year. Clients often receive requests from taxing authorities for additional information in October or November: make sure that you know how to contact the tax preparer after he or she files your return. Calls or emails should be returned within a reasonable amount of time (reasonable is key: don't be one of these clients). If your tax preparer isn't responsive, consider taking your business elsewhere.
  2. Your tax pro charges too much or won't explain your charges in advice.

    Don't misunderstand. I firmly believe that tax professionals offer a valuable service and should be compensated fairly. Don't be cheap if you expect great service. That said, charges should reflect the time and level of effort spent on your matter. Ask about pricing upfront but understand that charges may vary. More complicated matters, such as those involving treaty issues, pass-through entities, or previously unreported assets or income may require an additional level of expertise and that, justifiably, will cost more. Be prepared to pay your bills. If you feel that the charges aren't fair, speak up. But do it early: it's not fair to suggest after the work has been completed that the costs are too high.
  3. Your tax pro won't answer simple tax questions.

    Like many tax pros, I've spent a lot of years learning the ins and outs of the Tax Code. I often joke with my clients that if they could understand everything about taxes with just a few minutes of my explanation, then my law school professors owe me a huge refund. A lot of what tax pros do relies on extensive experience and education, and it would be impossible to explain all of the nuances. But tax pros should be prepared to answer basic questions about your tax form or information return - and what your options are when it comes to payment and planning. If your tax pro doesn't take the time to answer your simple questions, find someone who will.
  4. Your tax pro won't sign your return.

    Your tax preparer must sign your tax return (yes, electronic signatures count). Don't trust a preparer who refuses to sign a return or asks you to sign as self-prepared. Don't even walk away from this one: run!
  5. Your tax pro tells you to sign your return without reviewing it with you.

    Didn't your mother tell you to read something before signing it? The same applies to tax returns. You are signing the return under penalty of perjury. You need to review it before you sign it. If it's blank or if you don't have a chance to review it first, don't sign. Period.
  6. Your tax pro doesn't take steps to protect your tax and financial information.

    When we were moving into new office space, we noticed a huge stack of boxes at the curb. Upon closer inspection, we noticed they were client files from another professional who was moving. There were literally hundreds of potentially private client records just stacked on a city street corner. The apparent lack of professionalism (not to mention potential ethics violations) was shocking. Your tax pro should take care with your records - and it's not restricted to paper records: the same amount of care should be taken with electronic records. If you're not convinced that your records are secure, ask.
  7. Your tax pro doesn't have any interest in looking at your forms and receipts.

    While you shouldn't be expected to haul in the contents of your entire home office, a reputable preparer should insist that you provide your forms W-2, 1099, 1098, and other verification of income and expenses to prepare a proper return. You shouldn't use a preparer willing to file your return just by using a pay stub (that's against IRS rules). If a preparer isn't inclined to do the necessary due diligence (especially for something like the Earned Income Tax Credit) in the beginning, it should give you pause about what other corners the preparer might be willing to cut later - at your expense.
  8. Your tax pro seems unaware of changes in the law.

    Credits expire, deductions shrink, and rates can fluctuate from year to year. A good tax professional needs to be on top of those changes so they can let you know if your tax picture might be changing - or if any of your planning strategies need to be tweaked. Most tax pros take some form of continuing education during the year either because of their employer or because it's tied to maintaining their credentials (such as EAs, CPAs, and attorney). No matter the reason, staying on top of a quickly evolving Tax Code is important. If your tax pro seems like he or she hasn't looked at a tax update in years, it's time to move on.
  9. Your tax pro won't work with your financial team.

    I'm a big believer that your financial picture should be reviewed in context. No matter your age, you should have a trusted team of advisors to help you make decisions about taxes, investments, insurance and more (for a look at who you might include on your team, click here). Don't believe anyone - no matter how many degrees or gray hairs they have - who claims they can do it all. Just as you wouldn't want a podiatrist performing your open heart surgery, you don't want your tax attorney picking your stocks or advising on insurance policies. Surround yourself with good people and make sure that they are willing to work with other members of your team.
  10. Your tax pro won't cooperate with IRS.

    There's a difference between taking a position that differs from what the IRS proposes and refusing to cooperate with IRS. Your tax pro needs to be able to navigate those differences. Refusing to take calls or respond to correspondence from the IRS aren't strategies: they're red flags. Remember that when things go badly, it's the taxpayer (that's you) who is at risk, not the tax pro. If you have an open collections or compliance matter, exam, or other time sensitive issue, insist that you receive copies of correspondence sent on your behalf and demand regular updates if they're not offered.
  11. Your tax pro never offers any real advice.

    When you're paying your bill for the preparation of your return, an Offer In Compromise, an estate plan, or other tax-related matter, you're not paying for a piece of paper. That 1040? Anyone can fill out a form. Same goes for a will. Or an abatement request. But you're not paying for the paper: you're paying for the advice. You're paying for the hours of education and experience that goes into figuring out what to include - and what not to include - on those forms. If your tax pro balks at offering you advice (examples might include how to maximize your deductions, figure your withholding, or keep better records), you're missing out. Even worse, you're not getting what you're paying for. Ask questions. Expect answers. That's the value of a good tax pro.