You may have filed your own taxes as an individual. Great! Your resourceful, scrappy attitude makes you a successful business owner. But hiring a professional to prepare and file your taxes can be one of the best things you do for yourself and your business, to reduce your taxes and keep more of what’s yours.
What’s a CPA and why hire one?
There are many types of financial professionals, for individuals and businesses. The first time a freelancer or small business owner looks for financial advice, it’s usually related to taxes or bookkeeping. Later, a financial advisor might be brought in to deal with longer-term financial planning and more complex, strategic needs such as risk management and investment advisory. (It’s possible for your tax preparer to also provide consulting services, but for now let’s assume these are separate resources and focus on just the basics.)
CPAs, or Certified Public Accountants, are financial professionals who help with one or more of the following:
- Planning and preparing taxes to maximize returns, while avoiding penalties and audits
- Represent you to the IRS, in case of any issues
- Manage your self employment ledger and financial statements
- Set up an accounting system to help you stay organized
- Offer general business advice
For someone to qualify as a CPA, they must fulfill specific state requirements summarized as “the three E’s”: education, experience and exam. Each state has its own education and experience requirements, but the Uniform CPA Examination is a standard.
Finding a CPA for Freelancers or Small Business Owners
Step 1. Start with your needs. There are enough CPAs in the world (and your state) for you to be selective when trusting someone with your taxes. Taking the time to list your needs will help frame your search and choose the right person. You might only work with this person on a limited, transactional basis – and that’s fine. But is there a minimum amount of experience you require? Do you value strong communication skills so they can explain things to you, or do you simply want them to handle everything and keep the conversation limited?
Step 2. Find some local CPAs. Since tax laws vary state by state, it’s ideal to work with someone well versed in your state’s tax provisions. Google is a natural first place to look, but use caution. Just because someone ranks well in a search engine doesn’t mean they have the right experience. Get a list of options from the following places:
- Referrals! Think of successful freelancers and small business owners in your network, and ask who does their accounting and taxes. If you’d rather not use the same person as those in your network, you can at least ask them for a recommendation from their CPA.
- IRS Directory of Federal Tax Return Professionals. This is a free, regularly updated database of CPAs that lets you search by geographic location. It also shows you what specific credentials they have on file.
- U.S. Small Business Association. Get in touch with your local small business community, and see who they recommend.
Step 3. Check their credentials. Before reaching out to anyone, a few basics to look for include:
- PTIN number. The IRS requires anyone getting paid to prepare taxes to register with a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). This is a pretty straightforward, minimum requirement and you can find the PTIN number of any CPA on the IRS directory site.
- License. It’s relatively easy to get a PTIN number, and you don’t need a CPA license to get one. After passing the CPA exam and meeting educational and work experience requirements, you receive a CPA license. Check with your state’s professional licensing department to verify a CPA license.
- Other credentials. See if they belong to any national or state-level organizations, and verify this by searching those directories.
Step 4. Note their specialization. Tax provisions for freelancers and sole proprietors are different from personal income taxes. See if the CPA has experience preparing taxes for freelancers, sole proprietors and the self-employed.
Step 5. Read reviews. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a few people who meet the above criteria, it’s time to read some reviews. This can be testimonials on their own websites, but should also include Google Business listings, online directories, social media and more.
Step 6. Schedule a call. Armed with some good background information, you’re ready for some conversations. Try to book a call with at least three candidates so you have a point of comparison.
Questions to ask before and during each call:
- Are they willing to meet in person, or at least on a video call? It’s tempting to handle everything over contact forms and email, but if someone isn’t willing to offer this kind of customer service, find someone who does! You don’t want to look back one day and wonder why you didn’t take this seriously enough to establish a human connection from the start.
- Do they file electronically? The IRS requires those who prepare more than 11 tax returns per year to offer e-filing services. So if someone doesn’t offer e-filing, it could signal they don’t have much experience.
- Are they overly promotional? We’re not shopping for used cars. You are trusting someone to represent your business to the IRS, and to provide sound business advice. Watch out for anyone promising the biggest refunds possible, or anything that seems too good to be true; it might be a scam.
- How do they charge? Most CPAs charge a set minimum fee and add cost based on complexity, while others set a fee for each tax form you need. Make sure you decide on a CPA whose billing methods and fees fit your budget.
Hiring a CPA to prepare your taxes as a freelancer or sole proprietor can be empowering. Use these tips and guidelines to help find the right person for you. Here’s a few other questions to ask yourself before filing taxes, to be as prepared as possible.