What To Do If You Need Last-Minute Professional Tax Help

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With Tax Day now frighteningly close on the calendar, it’s safe to bet that plenty of DIYers are quickly realizing they bit off more than they could chew by trying to file their own returns this year. Maybe their tax situation got more complicated than they realized, or maybe their life circumstances changed and made their accounting needs more complex.

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No matter the reason, realizing that you need professional help at the 11th hour is an unenviable situation to be in. When you’re drafting in the late rounds, the pickings are slim — most tax pros are busy serving their longstanding clients and don’t have the time to bail out a procrastinator they don’t know.

“You should expect most professionals to have a cutoff date for accepting new clients,” said Dawn Scott, certified public accountant and founder of The Empowered CPA. “You should also expect to be extended if you arrive last minute. You will likely pay a premium and have to wait until after the deadline to meet with someone.”

That said, all is not lost. If it’s becoming clear that you’re in over your head and you need professional guidance, don’t worry, you have options — even at this late hour.

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Reach out to Friends and Family First

Word of mouth might be your best chance of success in this case. If your mom, cousin or work friend can put in a good word for you with whoever does their returns, that tax pro will likely be much more inclined to squeeze you in if it means keeping an existing client happy.

“As soon as you realize you need help, you should ask people you trust for referrals for a tax professional,” said Scott.

As an added bonus, you’ll also know you’re enlisting the services of a professional who is already trusted by someone you know. “Even though you are on a short time frame, it is essential you find a reputable preparer,” said Scott.

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Lean on the IRS’ Rolodex

If your personal network turns up a goose egg, stay calm — haste and stress only lead to unforced errors.

“Don’t panic,” said Anthony DeLorenzo, a certified public accountant (CPA) and tax expert with JustAnswer. “You have a few options if you are running last minute and need professional help.”

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The best of those options might just be the agency that you’re hoping to avoid trouble with in the first place.

“First, the IRS maintains a directory of tax return preparers where you can search local preparers based on location, credentials, and select qualifications,” said DeLorenzo. “These professionals will most likely be very busy during this time of the year and may charge more to take on your work. Regardless, you should ask them for a quote and shop the market with other professionals to get what is the best fit for you.”

Navigating the directory isn’t hard. Just know what kind of tax pro you’re looking for before you get started.

“Simply enter your ZIP, preferred distance, and contact the available tax preparers with suitable credentials and qualifications,” said Dmytro Serheeiv, tax consultant and co-owner of PDFliner.

Since you’re jumping in so late in the game, however, you should expect to put in a little legwork. “Don’t get discouraged if some of them don’t answer the phone, as at least one will always do,” said Serheeiv.

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According to DeLorenzo, it also might not be too late to take advantage of special IRS programs that serve specific populations. “If you qualify, the IRS provides free basic tax return preparation services known as the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs,” he said.

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Go With the Big-Name Tax Preparers

Mark Steber, chief tax information officer at Jackson Hewitt, recommends checking first with the IRS to find Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs), which provide in-person document review. The options might be limited depending on your state, though.

If you strike out there, he suggests moving on to organizations like his own — big, brand-name tax companies with offices all over the country that have the resources to beef up their staffs as the clock winds down in preparation for a crush of last-minute procrastinators.

“There are many professional organizations like Jackson Hewitt that have offices nationwide,” said Steber. “Tax preparation companies like Jackson Hewitt often have a variety of ways to schedule an appointment, use an online tax pro, or even drop off documents. For last-minute filers, it’s often best practice to schedule an appointment.”

Kick the Can Down the Road

If all else fails, it’s better to delay filing than to rush through a hurried tax return that is likely to be riddled with errors. That could force you to file an amended return, delay your refund, increase your tax bill or maybe even trigger an audit.

“If you realize you need help at the last minute, call an accountant or professional tax preparer, ask if they can file an extension and help you out after tax season,” said Kari Brummond, an accountant with TaxCure.com. “Just remember that an extension is only an extension on the paperwork. Your taxes are still due on April 15th. But as long as you file the extension, the late fee is only 0.5% of your tax bill. If you forget the extension, the fee is 10 times higher.”

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About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.
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