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Who to Contact for Tax Questions: Tax Lawyer or Accountant?

Taxes are complicated, and many people need help with assessing how income tax law applies to their financial situations. Just figuring out whether you need to contact a tax attorney or an accountant for assistance can make your tax issues seem even more confusing. This article breaks down the tax situations best addressed by an accountant and those for which you likely need to speak to a tax lawyer.

A Matter of Money

Why do you even need to choose between an accountant and a tax lawyer? After all, many tax lawyers are also certified public accountants (CPAs) who can answer your tax questions and even prepare tax returns on your behalf.

The answer boils down to money and the fact that tax attorneys generally charge significantly more for their services. You don't want to spend money on expensive legal services when your neighborhood accountant offers the same service for a fraction of the cost.

It should also be noted that there can be a significant price difference between the services of a CPA and a regular accountant. CPAs must meet more rigorous requirements than other accountants and usually charge more for their services. However, their fees are generally less than those charged by tax lawyers.

How Is a Tax Lawyer Different From an Accountant?

While tax attorneys and accountants both have specialized training in tax laws, rules, and regulations, the taxpayers who consult them are generally facing very different issues.

Tax Lawyer

A tax lawyer is a legal professional, in addition to being a tax professional. That means they have a law degree from an accredited law school, have passed the state bar exam, and are licensed to practice law by a state bar association. They are well-versed in the federal tax code and other tax laws and have the legal training to resolve tax disputes with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and state or local tax authorities. Additionally, if your tax dispute ends up going to court, a tax lawyer can represent you.

Often an accountant will refer you to a tax lawyer when they realize you need legal help that they can't provide because they don't have the skills or are legally barred from doing so.

Accountant

Most accountants who work for an accounting firm have a bachelor's degree from a two- or four-year college or university, and many have a master's degree. However, some accountants who work for firms specializing in tax preparation may just have on-the-job training in preparing tax forms and bookkeeping. CPAs have passed the CPA exam for their state and usually offer accounting services that extend beyond taxes.

When to Consult a Tax Lawyer

You should consult with an attorney in the following situations:

  • You need legal advice on how to prepare your tax return.
  • You're doing tax planning to reduce your individual or business tax bills.
  • You're concerned about the potential tax impact of personal or business financial decisions.
  • The IRS has contacted you with questions about a return you have filed or significant unreported income.
  • The IRS is questioning your or your business's financial statements.
  • You have a lot of money or assets and are looking into estate planning.
  • You want to take advantage of tax benefits in your financial planning.
  • The IRS has filed a tax lien against your property or assets.
  • The IRS has issued a tax levy against you that gives the agency the right to seize your property.
  • You owe significant back taxes that you believe were incorrectly assessed.
  • You have received notice of an IRS wage garnishment.
  • You have received notice that you are under investigation for tax fraud or another tax crime.
  • You have a large unpaid tax liability and want to negotiate with the IRS.
  • You're facing any other legal matters related to taxes or the IRS.

When to Work With an Accountant

A non-CPA accountant can help in the following situations:

  • Preparing a simple individual or business tax return
  • Correcting minor errors in a tax return that has been filed
  • Resolving minor disputes with the IRS regarding your tax return
  • Handling estate and tax planning questions if you don't have significant assets

Get Legal Help with Your Tax Questions

If you need legal help to answer questions regarding your taxes or represent you before the IRS, a local tax attorney can help. A tax lawyer will have the training and skills to ensure that your tax returns don't raise any issues with the IRS and that your rights are protected in any tax disputes you may have with the agency.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified tax attorney to help you navigate your federal and/or state tax issues.

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