As we approach Tax Season, I wonder how many people understand the potentially vast differences in the quality of tax return preparation? Are tax returns really the commodity that they seem to be? Is a tax return prepared by the tax service in the mall of the same quality as that prepared by a major CPA firm? What does it mean to have a “quality” tax return? In fact, can a tax return be prepared in such a way as to reduce income taxes?
As someone who has been involved in the tax return preparation process for almost 30 years, let me share some thoughts on this subject. As many of you know, I spent several years working on the tax staff at Ernst & Young. And you probably also know that I spent 4 years as the in-house tax advisor for Pinnacle West Capital, one of the largest companies based in Arizona.
What you may not know is that I started my career preparing tax returns for a couple of different small, local CPA firms in Salt Lake City, Utah and in Austin, Texas while I was attending the university in each of these cities. For the past 11 years, I have had my own firm, now called ProVision Wealth Strategists. So, I have a pretty diverse experience when it comes to tax return preparation.
In all the firms and companies at which I have worked, the basic accuracy of tax return preparation was excellent. There was always a good review process and I don't believe there were major mistakes on very many returns produced by these firms. I find this also to be the case on returns that I see from clients who are new to ProVision. It's rare that I find a flagrant error in a return.
But does that mean that these firms all produce the same quality of tax return? The clear answer in my experience is a resounding “NO!” Let me explain.
Accuracy in a tax return simply means that the information provided by the client was reflected on the tax return. It does not mean that the tax return was prepared in the BEST way it could have been prepared. In fact, I RARELY see a tax return from a new client that was prepared the way we would prepare it at ProVision.
Let me give you some examples. Suppose you have some expenses that could either qualify as investment expenses or business expenses. Either classification would be “deductible” on the tax return. BUT, a business expense is MORE DEDUCTIBLE than an investment expense. How is that possible? An investment expense is deducted on Schedule A and is classified as a “Miscellaneous Itemized Deduction.” There are several limitations on a miscellaneous itemized deduction. First, you only get to deduct these type of expenses to the extent they exceed 2% of your income. So, if you have $300,000 of income and $7,000 of investment expenses, you only get to deduct $1,000. What's worse is that if you are in the Alternative Minimum Tax like millions of taxpayers, you don't get any benefit for your investment expenses.
On the other hand, if you were able to deduct these same expense on your Schedule C or your Schedule E, you would be able to deduct 100% of the expenses. In addition, the expenses would reduce your self-employment income from your business. That's another 15.3% tax benefit on top of the income tax benefit.
Another example of less than stellar tax return preparation relates to depreciation. Depreciation is the government's gift back to investors, especially real estate investors, for investing in long-term assets such as equipment and buildings. What most tax preparers don't understand is the idea of a cost segregation or chattel appraisal. The whole goal with depreciation is to get more of it sooner. This provides the investor with a terrific tax benefit in the early years of property ownership. And under the important wealth creation principles of leverage and velocity, the sooner we have cash, the sooner we can invest it and obtain major returns from our investment. The problem appears to be a lack of knowledge from many tax preparers and CPAs about the rules surrounding cost segregation.
The one area where I do see mistakes relates to those taxpayers who file returns in multiple states. This is a specialty area of mine, which I teach at Arizona State University. Even in the major firms, there is a lack of understanding by the Federal tax departments of the many opportunities for tax savings when preparing multistate tax returns.
What it comes down to is whether your tax preparer/CPA has the knowledge and creativity necessary to prepare the BEST return possible. And is it worth it to you to pay a little more to get the better result? Are you focused on the amount you pay your advisors or are you focused on the return they provide you on your investment? Let me give you an example.
Suppose you have a choice of paying $750 for your tax return to a small CPA firm or $2,000 to an innovative, knowledgeable firm. All things being equal, anyone would choose to pay the lesser amount. But what if all things are not equal? What if the $750 gets you an adequate, accurate return but the $2,000 would get you a return where you pay $5,000 less in tax? Which is the better deal? In one, you are out $750 with no return on your investment. In the other, you are net ahead $3,000. Clearly, the $2,000 fee returns a greater value.
This tax season, review your own tax situation and the advice you are receiving from your tax preparer/CPA. Are you getting the return on investment you want? Are you getting the planning ideas you need? Are your taxes going down or do they continue to increase? Taxes are such a major part of your wealth creation that you cannot afford to ignore one of the most important part of the tax planning process – tax return preparation.