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Shop around to get the best tax-preparation deal

By April Reese
University of Georgia

Not everyone needs professional help to file their tax returns. Many people, though, still pay for help. But who should file your returns? And how much will it cost?

"Unfortunately, filing a tax return can be a daunting and complicating process," said Michael Rupured, a consumer economics specialist with the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences. "The vast majority of people do turn to some kind of preparation assistance."

Shop around

Rupured urges people to shop around.

"I think it's important," he said. "There are differences in paid preparers. Some are large, commercial preparers, national organizations that do a lot of advertising. And some are mom-and- pop operations. Their qualifications may vary."

Rupured said there are things to look for when deciding on a preparation service.

Check qualifications and rates

"First, find out the qualifications of the individuals who will be doing your return," he said. "However, most companies use computer software that makes it very difficult for them to make a mistake."

He said it's also important to check rates.

"The company may charge you a different fee for each form you're required to fill out," he said. "There may also be an additional charge if you want to e-file, electronically file your return."

Another cost to watch out for is associated with refund anticipation loans. Rupured said some companies will lend a customer money in the amount of the refund so the customer doesn't have to wait for the Internal Revenue Service.

"Now, if you file your return electronically, you can arrange for direct deposit of your refund into your checking or savings account," he said.

"If that return is transmitted electronically to the IRS by 11 a.m. on Thursday," he said, "the IRS promises your return will be credited to your bank account no later than the following Friday (assuming there are no problems with the return). That being the case, there is no reason you should pay a couple hundred extra dollars for a refund anticipation loan."

Free tax services

Free tax help is available for the elderly and those with modest incomes.

"Tax Counseling for the Elderly is a partnership program between the IRS and AARP," Rupured said. "It offers free tax return assistance for senior citizens."

There is also the Volunteer Income tax Assistance Program, or VITA. It provides free tax help to low- or moderate-income families. In general, if your income is less than $40,000, you will qualify for services. To find the nearest site to you, call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040.

Do it yourself

"Very few people are comfortable filling out their tax returns on their own," Rupured said. "Tax laws are complicated, and people are afraid of making a mistake. Tax professionals can certainly be a valuable resource in those situations. But everyone doesn't need to go to a paid professional to file their returns."

If you do feel comfortable filing your own taxes, there are several ways to use your personal computer to file.

"The first way is to use some type of software package that allows you to do that," he said. "Another way is to go to a Web site. A number of the larger commercial preparation services have a Web site where you can actually go and enter your return on-line. Of course, there's a fee for this service."

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