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By Michael O'Connor , Juan Pelayo
Certified public accountants (CPAs) represent one source of tax advisors, although not all CPAs have expertise in this area. Enrolled agents are individuals licensed by the IRS to represent taxpayers, and this group generally has a high degree of expertise.
Typically, charges for a tax return with multiple deductions and credits will cost $150 to $400. Several national companies provide tax preparation and tax counseling services. Many operate only during the tax-filing season, but a small number in larger urban areas are open year-round. Fees charged by these companies are lower than the fees typically charged by CPAs and enrolled agents.
Some parents may not be able to afford fees charged by professional tax preparers, who generally seek payment in advance. An option for lower-income clients is the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. However, because of the volunteers' broad range of skills and expertise, caution is recommended. Some large cities have one or more VITA programs that offer professional-level services. A university accounting department or the local legal services program may be able to help you identify a high-quality VITA program.
Disputes with the IRS are relatively rare; less than 1.5% of all individual income tax returns are subject to an IRS audit. However, if the IRS questions your return and you feel an IRS agent is not responding properly, contact the taxpayer advocate for assistance toll-free: (877) 777-4778. Low-income taxpayer clinics are another source of help. The IRS funds more than 100 clinics to represent lower-income taxpayers in disputes with the IRS or state revenue departments. Clinics assist taxpayers with income under 250% of the poverty level — about $50,000 for a family of four. Some clinics, especially those attached to law schools, will represent higher-income families. Information on the nearest clinic can be obtained from the general IRS toll-free inquiry number: (800) 829-1040. Families above this income level should call their county or state bar association.
This guide offers a brief summary of some of the potential tax benefits that may be available to you. You should obtain copies of the IRS publications cited above and discuss with your tax advisor whether these benefits apply to you. Again, you should not rely on this guide alone to determine whether you should claim any of the tax benefits reviewed here.
Michael A. O'Connor is an attorney who promotes awareness of tax policies that benefit families. In addition, as a member of the firm Mauk & O'Connor, LLP, he represents parents in disputes with local school districts concerning special education services for learning disabled children. He is a board member of the Council of Parent Attorneys & Advocates (COPAA).
Juan Pelayo is a tax attorney specializing in all aspects of personal income, trust and estate, and gift taxation, including income tax return preparation. He is admitted to practice before the United States Tax Court and has represented and assisted numerous clients with audits and appeals. Pelayo practices tax law with the law firm Seifer, Murken, Despina, James & Teichman, ALC, in San Francisco and is a member of the taxation sections of both the State Bar of California and American Bar Association.
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