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What the tax pros say you should do before heading their way

Sarah O'Brien

Maybe this scenario is familiar: Once a year around this time, you hunt through stacks of disorganized papers for receipts, grab unopened mailings marked "important tax documents enclosed," throw everything into a box and head to your tax preparer .

If this is your annual last-minute ritual, tax pros have a few suggestions.

The National Association of Enrolled Agents recently surveyed more than 1,400 of its members — who are federally licensed tax experts — about the ways that taxpayers can get the most out of having a professional tax preparer.

"The more you do in advance, the better the chance will be that you've maximized your deductions and minimized the back-and-forth between you and your tax preparer," said Jeffrey Gentner, an enrolled agent and owner of J.R. Gentner & Associates in Buffalo, New York.

This year, taxes are due April 17 . While organizing your receipts before handing them off is helpful, the advice from pros shows the importance of making tax planning a year-round practice instead of a last-minute scrambled effort.

Here are some of the most agreed-upon strategies among tax pros for getting the most bang for your buck out of your tax advisor, now and year-round.


Get organized

Beyond saving receipts for expenses that could be tax-deductible (i.e., charitable contributions, business expenses) and keeping them organized throughout the year, there are other steps that lend themselves to better tax planning. In the survey, the top three ways identified by respondents to stay organized were:

  • Use separate bank accounts for personal and business funds (83 percent).
  • Keep your receipts in case your return is examined (81 percent).
  • Use a mileage log or smartphone app to record business miles driven (75 percent).

Additionally, ask your tax advisor for a thorough checklist of items or situations that could have tax implications. For instance, Gentner said, some taxpayers don't realize that renting out their vacation home could result in tax deductions. Others might think income from a side gig is not taxable.

You also can ask your tax preparer in advance of meeting with them for a list of exactly what documents and information you should bring so they can do your tax return without a hitch.


Communication

While taxes might not be forefront on your mind when you're not facing a filing deadline, it's important to keep your tax advisor in the loop in certain situations. When you have a major life change — i.e., divorce, job change, birth of a child, house purchase — it's worth sharing the information.

For instance, if the event would affect your tax burden (for better or worse), your preparer might have suggestions for changes to make to your W-4, which dictates how much tax gets withheld from your paycheck.

It's also important to let your tax advisor know if you hear from the IRS about your tax return. And the sooner the better — the longer you ignore the issue, the more it could cost you in penalties and fees if you owe additional tax.

Yet don't act so quickly that you pay the stated amount due without making sure it's accurate.

"If you just pay what the IRS says you owe, you could be overpaying," Gentner said. "It isn't always as severe as you think it is."


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