How do you know you have a great accountant? He has a tax loophole named after him… All jokes aside, tax is a complex subject and, despite decades of talk about simplifying the tax code, it just seems to get more confusing each year. After a decade of working in public accounting, I can’t count how many times clients came to me to ask about sketchy tax advice they’d received from dubious sources.
“My neighbor says Social Security income isn’t taxable.”
“My girlfriend’s dad told me I can deduct all of my vehicle expenses if I set up an LLC.”
“I saw an ad on TV that promised me a bigger tax refund than the competition.”
“I heard that paying taxes is voluntary.”
When you’re seeking out sound financial answers, be wary of the source. Next time someone offers their tax advice, look out for these 8 red flags.
1. The Advice Sounds Too Good to be True
This kind of advice usually involves tax-free income or being able to deduct personal expenses.
According to the IRS, all income is taxable unless the law specifically says it isn’t. Life insurance proceeds, scholarships, gifts and inheritances, child support payments, welfare benefits and damages for physical injuries or sickness are all types of income that may not be taxable. However, there are a few situations where they might be. When in doubt, consult with a qualified tax pro.
Personal expenses are rarely deductible. Some common exemptions are home mortgage interest, real estate taxes, medical expenses and charitable contributions. They’re allowed as itemized deductions on Schedule A of your Form 1040. Other expenses for your personal residence or vehicle are only deductible if they are used for business. If a friend tells you he writes off all of his home or vehicle expenses, he’s practically telling you he’s committing tax fraud. Don’t take tax advice from a crook.
2. The Advice Lacks Context
Above, we mentioned that certain types of income are usually non-taxable, but may be taxable under certain circumstances. The tax code is rarely absolute. When you read the code, you’ll see a lot of words and phrases like “generally,” “except under certain conditions,” “usually” and “in most cases.”
Most tax pros joke the answer to any question starts with the words “that depends.” Be wary of any advice that doesn’t take your unique situation into account.
3. You Have Difficulty Understanding It
The tax code is complicated, but a good tax pro should be able to explain any basic rules, deductions and credits that apply to your return.
Remember: you are responsible for everything on your tax return, whether or not you paid someone else to prepare it for you. If you don’t understand something, ask! If you’re getting a much larger return (or owe more money) than expected, consult someone and find out why.
4. There Might Be a Conflict of Interest
Look out for tax advice from people who are seeking to receive a commission or kickback. Some tax pros are also qualified to give financial advice but avoid taking advice that comes with an ulterior motive. The person might suggest you invest in a real estate venture that they hold a stake in or recommend financial products for which they receive commissions or referral fees.
Don’t be afraid to ask, “How will you benefit from this?” if you suspect the advice is not in your best interest.
5. The Advice Suggests Taxes is Voluntary
No matter how many times these arguments get shot down in court, some people continue to claim that the payment of federal income taxes is “voluntary.” This claim is based, in part, on the fact that the IRS itself describes the way we file and pay federal taxes as “voluntary compliance.”
As the fact-checking website Snopes points out, “common sense dictates that if paying income tax were really voluntary, that tidbit of information wouldn’t be known to only a small cadre of tax protesters while millions of other Americans annually forked over considerable amounts of money they weren’t obligated to pay.”
As numerous tax court cases have shown, neither the obligation to file a tax return nor the payment of income taxes is voluntary. File your return and pay what is owed. Otherwise, you’ll soon find out just how mandatory paying taxes really is.
6. The Advice is Referred to as a “Tax Shelter”
There are a few bonafide tax shelters such as those related to oil and gas exploration and development. However, most are at least bad deals from a business viewpoint, and at worst they violate tax law. Any business deal that needs to be structured as a tax shelter to be profitable is not a sound business deal. Good business deals show profits before tax considerations.
There are also tax shelters that promise you’ll receive $400 in deductions for every $100 you invest (or some similar “too good to be true” scenario). The tax authorities are constantly investigating such tax shelters. If you get caught avoiding income taxes by illegal means, you’ll have to pay back taxes, plus interest and some hefty penalties.
7. Someone Promises You a Big Refund… Before They Look at Your Info
Every year during tax season, the commercials, ads and billboards that promise huge tax refunds begin to flood in. No accountant can get your refund faster or bigger than anyone else. You are entitled to the same refund, whether you prepare the return yourself or hire a professional.
Anyone promising they’ll get you the biggest refund may be padding your return with credits you’re not entitled to. Don’t fall for the hype.
8. You Receive No Advice at All
Even if you normally prepare your own tax return, you may occasionally run into a new situation and need help. Major life changes, such as selling real estate, buying your first home, starting a new business or adopting a child usually means significant changes to your tax filing.
Don’t be afraid to seek out the advice of a professional. Even if you want to prepare your own return, most tax pros will be willing to sit down with you to answer questions and offer advice on your unique situation. The hourly rate they’ll charge may be well worth avoiding an audit—or paying a penalty for filing an incorrect return.
If you’re unsure, seek that advice from a certified and experienced tax pro. Look for someone with a credential, such as a CPA or EA. These professionals are well-trained, held to a code of ethics and required to maintain up-to-date knowledge.
At a minimum, all tax preparers in the United States are required to obtain a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). You can use this search tool available on the IRS website to find a preparer who holds a professional credential or voluntarily obtained a certain number of continuing education hours each year.
Getting professional advice is more expensive than getting advice from your skateboard buddy, but think of it as insurance: pay a small premium today to avoid an expensive disaster tomorrow.
This is an archived post from the FreshBooks Blog and was originally published in March 2012.
Janet Berry-Johnson is a CPA and a freelance writer with a background in accounting and insurance. Her writing has appeared in Forbes, Parachute by Mapquest, Capitalist Review, Guyvorce, BonBon Break and Kard Talk. Janet lives in Arizona with her husband and son and their rescue dog, Dexter. Outside of work and family time, she enjoys cooking, reading historical fiction, and binge-watching Real Housewives.