Navigating the labyrinth of federal and state tax forms is a tricky business. It's no wonder that so many of us are willing to pay a professional (accountants, financial planner, etc.) to fill in our tax returns. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, 53.5% of taxpayers used a professional tax preparer, according to the IRS.

Key Takeaways

  • Regulation of independent tax preparers is lax in most states.
  • Accountants, lawyers, and enrolled agents are highly qualified for the job of tax preparation.
  • If you find an error in your taxes, file an amended return as soon as you can.
  • If you suspect misconduct on the part of your preparer, file a complaint with the IRS.

Yet some filers find that the professionals can make mistakes, too. And when the pros mess up, the consequences can be very bad for you, not for them. You can lose deductions and credits that you're eligible for, meaning that you pay more in tax than you actually owe, or miss out on a refund. Worse, you could get a refund that you're not entitled to receive. Sooner or later, the IRS will come calling to claw it back. 

Who Are the Professional Tax Preparers?

Part of the problem lies in the relatively lax rules regarding who’s allowed to prepare a return for someone else.

Although we usually associate the job with accountants, the fact is that, in most of the U.S., anyone can obtain a preparer tax identification number from the IRS and start taking on clients. Few states require a test or ongoing education before someone can hang up a shingle.

Now, some professionals, including chartered accountants, tax lawyers, and enrolled agents, are highly qualified to do returns and have to comply with a number of government regulations. But most independent tax preparers, who make up the lion’s share of the market, face little oversight.

Some taxpayers have been going to the same independent tax preparer for years with a high degree of confidence. But given the current system, it’s easy to choose a preparer who isn't qualified or, worse, will intentionally manipulate your return in order to generate a higher fee.

Fixing Errors on Filed Returns

If the error seems to be the result of an honest mistake, you can ask your preparer to take the necessary corrective steps, including filing an amended return.

When the mistake results in fees or penalties, the service provider will often compensate the customer directly in order to smooth things over. Others may offer to contact the IRS on your behalf to negotiate forgiveness of the error or a reduction in the penalties, but not all preparers have the credentials needed to do so.

Should you suspect misconduct on the part of your preparer, you need to take a different tack. Specific forms exist, available for download from the IRS website, that you will need to fill out and mail or fax, using the contact information on the form.

Form 14157 ("Complaint: Tax Return Preparer") on the IRS website deals with preparer malfeasance. If your tax return or refund was affected by the error, you’ll also need to complete Form 14157-A ("Tax Return Preparer Fraud or Misconduct Affidavit").

If you received a notice from the IRS about a problem with your return, mail the forms with copies of any supporting documentation to the address shown in the letter. If you did not get a notice, you should send it to the address where you send your Form 1040. 

The IRS will conduct an investigation. If it finds intentional wrongdoing, it could rescind the individual’s preparer tax identification number. Licensed preparers may also face action from their state's regulatory body.

In a worst-case scenario, you may have to take the matter to court in order to get relief from the costs of the error. But that means incurring substantial legal fees, not to mention the loss of time. Going to court should be your last resort for dealing with an inaccurate tax return.

Avoiding the Bad Apples

To avoid having these sorts of problems with a tax preparer, research candidates before selecting one. If possible, get referrals from people you know who can vouch for their abilities and ethics. In addition, the IRS offers a directory where you can look up professionals with specific credentials, such as attorneys and certified public accountants.

And keep in mind that just because you're hiring someone else to do most of the numbers-crunching and box-checking, it doesn’t mean you should take a totally hands-off approach to your tax return. Ultimately, it's your responsibility—and you're the one on the hook for any taxes and penalties that arise from an inaccurate return. Make sure you review everything carefully, from the figures to the particular forms, before signing your name on that dotted line.