This article originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of Security Business magazine. When sharing, don’t forget to mention Security Business magazine on LinkedIn and @SecBusinessMag on Twitter.
When it comes to seeking advice or preparing the security integration, consulting, or installing operation’s tax returns, complex, ever-changing tax rules make doing it without help extremely risky. While off-the-shelf software or more expensive custom software are frequently used, professional help is almost a necessity.
Most security businesses use a professional at some point, most commonly to prepare tax returns; in fact, according to the IRS, more than half of all returns filed were filed by tax professionals. For those without professional help, or those seeking to change tax professionals, choosing one should go deeper than the least expensive or most convenient.
1. Determine what the business actually needs.
An important step to finding the right professional requires an inventory of what the business needs in the way of services and advice and, most importantly, how much can the operation afford to pay for that advice or services.
It is important to determine beforehand just how much of the work you and the operation’s employees will do and how much of it will be done by the professional(s).
Generally, experts suggest that it is best to find a professional focusing on clients that mirror your business’s situation. Smaller tax return preparers and national chains such as H&R Block tend to focus on individuals, professionals and smaller-sized businesses. Medium-sized CPA firms usually specialize in mid-to-large scale regional businesses and high-income individuals. National CPA firms are geared to servicing very large companies and their top employees.
2. Ask good questions and verify credentials.
Asking the right questions, often during the free initial conference offered by most professionals, can help assess not only the needs of the business, but also determine whether the professional will be a good fit for the business.
There are various options for both tax advice and return preparation. Anyone can be a paid tax return preparer, as long as they have an IRS Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN), so it is important to be cognizant of the fact there are various types of tax return preparers with differing levels of skills, education and expertise.
Bookkeepers are great for the day-to-day recordkeeping of a business. Accountants, on the other hand, usually crunch the numbers tracked by the bookkeeper, translating and even evaluating those figures into a format understandable and usable by the average business owner, shareholder or manager.
When dealing with an accountant, do not underestimate the importance of a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). Passing the CPA examination is frequently a guarantee of a certain level of abilities. Those letters are awarded only to those who have passed a rigorous three-day, nationally standardized exam. Most states require CPAs to have at least a college degree or its equivalent.
While many CPAs advise and prepare returns, keep in mind that the CPA designation does not require a special knowledge of our tax laws. Although CPAs and attorneys are permitted to practice before the IRS and the tax courts, another group of professionals, enrolled practitioners (EAs), must demonstrate their knowledge of taxes in order to represent taxpayers in those venues.
The EA has successfully completed a three-day test that is all about taxes. It is the IRS, not a local association of professionals that tests, monitors and polices the enrolled practitioner.
Typically, attorneys specializing in tax law are not ardent disciples of tax return preparation. Such legal professionals are most often confined to complex transaction issues and document preparation.
3. What should a security business owner be looking for in a tax professional?
Knowledge and expertise rank high among the factors that should be considered. Your tax professional should be able to explain various concepts, generate ideas and discuss the benefits and costs of implementing various strategies.
Similarly, when it comes to preparing the operation’s tax return, the professional should, where appropriate, do the year-end planning. He or she should advise as to how to minimize taxes as well as give you a heads-up as to your cash needs the following April.
Finding a pro who is both available and affordable is something that should not be overlooked. Fortunately, many professionals offer free first meetings for discussion of expectations, services needed and provided, extent of involvement by the professional and the portion of the work the operation’s employees expects to shoulder.
It is not “tacky” to discuss fees before engaging the services of a professional although money should not be the sole criteria for selecting that professional. Comparison shopping to find a tax professional who can provide the level of service you require at an agreeable price should begin immediately.
4. Best practices for security business executives
Beware and avoid preparers who base their fee on a percentage of the operation’s refund or those who claim they are able to generate larger refunds than others can. Refunds should always come to the taxpayer, business or individual, and not the preparer, and the same rule applies to deposits.
Never sign a blank return; review the return before signing. After all, regardless of who prepares the return, it is the taxpayer who is ultimately responsible.
If a tax professional’s qualifications or promises are questionable there is the possibility of fraud. Check the disciplinary records and license status for credentialed preparers. For CPAs, a check with the State Board of Accountancy; for attorneys, check with the State Bar Association; and for EAs, go to www.irs.gov and search “verify enrolled agent status.”
If you are still struggling to find a tax pro, seek a referral from business associates, your banker or attorney.
5. Establish a long-term, ongoing relationship.
Since business (and life) doesn’t happen just at tax time, access to the tax professional for year-round guidance is essential. If there is an IRS audit, the professional should be available and able to guide the security business owner or executive through the process.
Depending on the needs of the security business and the particular point in its operational life, the involvement of a tax professional may vary. Simply preparing an accurate, timely and cost-effective tax return is all you may need today; however, your needs could expand into more complex tax strategies, transaction analysis or even tax-sheltered investments in the future.
Mark E. Battersby ([email protected]) is a freelance writer who specializes in tax-related issues.