Q: What are the advantages or disadvantages to doing your own taxes electronically rather than going to a professional tax preparer?
A: First, a disclaimer: I'm biased. I make my living providing tax planning and tax preparation services and have done so for over 25 years. Before that I spent 6 years auditing income tax returns for the IRS.
That being said, let's start with the advantages of preparing and filing your own tax returns electronically. I am assuming you mean using the IRS' free tax-filing service (http://www.irs.gov/uac/Free-File:-Do-Your-Federal-Taxes-for-Free) and the FTB's CalFile option (https://www.ftb.ca.gov/individuals/efile/allsoftware.shtml):
The main advantage: It's free.
Now let's talk about the disadvantages:
-- Unless your taxes are very simple (ie. you are single, you don't have any children, your only income is from wages, you don't have any deductible expenditures and didn't pay any education-related expenses), you run the risk of making costly mistakes without knowing it.
--If your taxes are not extremely simple, you are liable to spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out how to prepare your return.
--You are liable to miss tax saving deductions and credits without knowing it.
--If you have questions, you either have to try finding the answers yourself or call the IRS and FTB tax help lines, which this time of year means spending lots of time on hold. This assumes you know what questions to ask.
--If you receive a notice from the IRS or FTB regarding your return after you have filed it, you have to figure out what the notice means and how to respond to it.
--Income tax has its own language. Words that have one meaning in general usage may mean something entirely different in the world of income taxation. What you think you know, you may not know.
Here are a few advantages of using a professional tax preparer:
--You get the benefit of his/her training and experience to prepare your return as timely as possible.
--You reduce the chance of errors when using an experienced, well-trained tax professional.
--You reduce the possibility of missing valuable deductions or credits that might legitimately lower your tax liability.
--You may get some suggestions about how to save taxes going forward that you might not have known about.
--You have someone to ask questions.
--If you receive a notice from the IRS or FTB regarding your tax return, you have someone knowledgeable to deal with it on your behalf.
So what are the potential disadvantages of using a professional tax preparer?
--You have to pay fees.
--You have to decide who to use, which can be daunting since professional tax preparers range from unlicensed individuals to multi-national accounting firms.
--You face the possibility of using a bad preparer - or a good preparer who makes an error preparing your return.
Almost 60 percent of people filing federal income tax returns use a tax preparer, according to the IRS (Publication 4822, Taxpayer Filing Attribute Report). Except in fewer and fewer cases, there is no such thing as a simple income tax return, given the growing complexity of this country's tax laws. Throw in California's 200-plus differences from the federal rules and you face a tax-filing landscape full of traps for the unwary.