How To Find the Right Tax Accountant

Referrals Are Always a Good Place To Start

An older couple meeting with a female professional at a laptop

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If you're looking for a tax accountant, you'll want to first determine out what you need them to do for you. Whether you're looking to file back taxes, pay off a tax debt, or fight an audit, you should make sure that any accountant you're considering working in specializes in that area. You should also ensure that anyone you hire has a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN).

Key Takeaways

  • Asking for referrals can be helpful when it comes to finding the right accountant to suit your needs.
  • No one can legally accept payment for preparing your taxes unless they have a preparer tax identification number (PTIN).
  • Types of legitimate tax professionals include enrolled agents, certified public accountants (CPAs), and tax attorneys.
  • Arrange a sit-down meeting with the tax professional to discuss your situation and to ask some questions before your first official visit.

Where To Look for a Tax Accountant

Asking for referrals can be a good bet when it comes to finding someone who's the right fit for what you need. Ask business owners, financial advisors, and attorneys that you trust, as well as any friends or family members who work with an accountant.


If you're asking someone for a referral, explain why you're looking for an accountant and what you want the accountant to do for you. This will help people to steer you in the right direction. 

Don't hesitate to call the firm or the accountant to find out whether they have the expertise to handle your taxes if there's anything unusual about your situation.

Determine Legitimacy of Accountant

Be wary of an accountant who promises you a giant refund right from the start, before they've even analyzed your personal financial situation. The same goes for someone who says that you can deduct an excessive number of expenses before really talking to you.


No one can legally accept payment for preparing your taxes unless they have a preparer tax identification number (PTIN) from the IRS. The number should be entered on any tax return they file for you. Something might be amiss if you don't see one.

You can pull the plug if necessary. Don't be afraid to shop around or to change accountants if you aren't satisfied or comfortable with the service you're receiving, even if you're midway through the process and the tax deadline is looming.

You can always request an extension of time to file your return by submitting IRS Form 4868 instead of your Form 1040, so you'll have more time to find the right professional.

Retail Tax Franchises

Retail tax franchises such as H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, and Liberty Tax Service offer competent help if you just want to file a relatively straightforward tax return. Sometimes you can even find certified public accountants (CPAs) and enrolled agents (EAs) working in these offices.

Ask if you can meet with a CPA, an EA, or a senior tax preparer if you decide to use one of these services. That way you'll get to work with a more seasoned professional.

Types of Tax Professionals

Depending on your situation, you might want to hire an enrolled agent, a certified public accountant (CPA), or a tax attorney.

Enrolled Agents

Enrolled agents (EAs) have to pass rigorous testing and background checks administered by the IRS. It's the highest credential that you can receive from the IRS.


Some EAs are approved without testing because they've actually worked for the IRS, but all have to complete continuing education requirements every three years.

EAs often specialize in certain tax areas, and they're best for dealing with complex tax situations. They can represent you before the IRS if you're faced with an audit or collection actions.

Certified Public Accountants

Certified public accountants (CPAs) have passed the rigorous Uniform CPA Examination, and they're licensed by the board of accountancy in the state where they work. They have accounting degrees from a university or college, and continuing licensing requirements involve meeting certain character and experience thresholds.

CPAs often specialize in areas specific to accounting. Some specialize in tax accounting, but not all CPAs handle tax issues. A CPA can also represent you before the IRS if you're dealing with an audit or collections.

Tax Attorneys

Tax attorneys are lawyers who specialize in tax law, and they're licensed by state courts and state bar associations. They may also have master of law degrees in taxation, in addition to the required law degree.

Attorneys are best at complex legal matters such as preparing estate tax returns or taking your case before the U.S. Tax Court. They're typically also subject to continuing education requirements.

Interviewing Tax Accountants

You don't want commit your personal business to anyone you haven't met, so arrange to sit down the professional to discuss your situation and to ask some questions before your first official visit, even if you have to do it over the phone.

Request references, just as you would from anyone you're thinking of hiring, and reach out to those references to corroborate them.

Questions for References

When speaking with references, remember that not everyone will feel comfortable talking to you, and keep it simple. Ask basic questions like, "Are you pleased with their services?" or "Did you ever have a problem with them?"

The answers to these questions can tell you a lot, especially if you stop talking after you ask and let the other individual state whatever comes to their mind.

Questions for Accountants

Asking the right questions can help ensure that you find someone who's experienced and trustworthy. Some areas to explore include:

  • What licenses or designations do you have?
  • How long have you been in the tax business?
  • What tax issues do you specialize in?
  • Do you outsource any of your work, or do you and/or your staff perform all work personally?
  • Approximately how long will it take you to finish my tax return?
  • What are your fees? Are they negotiable? Can I have that in writing?
  • What is your privacy policy?
  • Do you believe that I'm paying too much, too little, or just the right amount of tax?


Accountants that prepare taxes or work as financial planners are required provide written statements regarding their privacy policies to all clients. Ask for a copy if you're not offered one.

Vetting Tax Accountants

Perform a quick background check after your initial interview. You might even search for the professional's name in social media. Find out what's said on their own site, and what others have said about them.

Contact your state's board of accountancy to check the status of a CPA's license or to find out whether any disciplinary action has ever been taken against the accountant. You can ask the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility if an EA has ever been censured or subjected to other disciplinary action. You might also want to check with your local chamber of commerce.


Remember that you, not the accountant, are ultimately responsible for the accuracy of the information included on your tax return.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What should I look for when choosing a tax preparer?

You'll want to make sure that the tax preparer specializes in whatever area you most need assistance with, that they have an active preparer tax identification number (PTIN), and that they don't have a history of professional misconduct. You should also check their qualifications and make sure you know how much it will cost to hire them.

Is a CPA better than a tax preparer?

CPAs are required to have have more training and higher education than licensed tax preparers. However, CPAs can be more expensive than licensed tax preparers. Whether you hire a CPA or a tax preparer should depend on what your tax needs are.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. IRS. "Understanding Tax Return Preparer Credentials and Qualifications."

  2. IRS. "About Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return."

  3. IRS. "Enrolled Agent Information."

  4. The CPA Journal. "New FTC Privacy Disclosure Rules."

  5. IRS. "Search for Disciplined Tax Professionals."

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