Personal Finance: Ask the Experts

Get advice on money matters from The Bee's Claudia Buck and a panel of local experts

May 20, 2013
Do tax preparers ever quote fees before preparing returns?

My wife and I are both retired and have no mortgage. Because of this we use the standard deduction and have a very simple tax return. We each receive a 1099R and a SSA-1099. We also receive a consolidated form 1099 for investments. We have no other dependents or deductions.

We usually get a large refund because we choose to have taxes taken out of our monthly checks. About 6 or 7 years ago, our tax preparer charged what I felt was too much to do our taxes. Each of the following two years, I changed tax preparers. Each year the return cost a little more than the year before, with the final year being $350. None of the preparers would give us an estimation of costs prior to doing the return.

Each year I took in the previous year's return to simplify the preparer's job. I have been doing my taxes myself with tax software the last 4 years.

My question: How do you find a tax preparer who is willing to give you an estimate of the cost BEFORE you have them start your return?
Thanks for your time.

Corning, CA

A: In my experience, very few tax preparers give a fixed fee quote in advance of providing services. In order to find one who does, I would suggest calling tax preparers in your area to ask if they prepare returns for a fixed fee and ask for a quote in advance. Be sure to get the quote in writing.

You could also try asking your friends and other professionals, such as bankers and attorneys, who they recommend for tax preparation. Call those referrals to see if they provide fixed fee services.

Most tax preparers don't give fixed fee quotes because of the difficulty in anticipating the complexity involved in preparing a client's tax return, especially for the first time.

For example, you state that your wife is receiving required minimum distributions from her IRA. Does she have "basis" in her IRA for federal or state purposes? Many people have nondeductible contributions to IRA accounts for state purposes that can be recovered tax-free because back in the late 1970s and early 1980s the state IRA deduction was less than the federal counterpart. Additionally, for many years the IRA rules have provided for nondeductible contributions that give rise to "basis" for federal as well as state purposes.

What may appear to be a simple matter of entering the data from the 1099-R form reporting the IRA distribution becomes a lot more complicated if have to go back and review prior year returns, if they are available, to calculate basis and account for it properly.

This is just one example of how something that appears simple may contain hidden complexities that can't be fully anticipated at the start of an engagement. There are many others, too numerous to list.

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Meet Our Financial Experts

Claudia Buck

Claudia Buck is The Sacramento Bee's personal finance columnist. Read all her columns here. Contact her at

Terri Carpenter

Terri Carpenter offers advice on job hunting, retraining and career counseling. Carpenter works at Sacramento Works Inc., the career and job training arm of the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency (SETA). With 15 years in the field, she has hands-on experience with everyone from first-time job seekers to career professionals seeking advice after a layoff or looking for a mid-career change. Ask her a question.

Carlena Tapella

Carlena Tapella is a partner in the law firm of Webb & Tapella Law Corp. in Sacramento. The firm specializes in estate planning and probate, such as estates, trusts, conservatorships and litigation. She is a past president of the Sacramento County Bar Association's Estate Planning & Probate Section. Ask her a question.

Kimberly Foss

Kimberly Foss, certified financial planner, is the founder of Empyrion Wealth Management in Roseville. With nearly 30 years in the financial industry, her clients include women in transition, small business owners, retirees and "pre-retirees." Ask her a question.

Jesse Weller

Gregory Burke, a CPA and tax expert with John Waddell & Co. in Sacramento since 1984, worked as an IRS tax auditor for six years. He’s a past chairman of the California Society of CPAs. Ask him a question.

Daniel Tahara

Daniel Tahara takes your questions about California taxes. Tahara, a spokesman for the state Franchise Tax Board, has 10 years of experience as a tax auditor. Ask him a question.

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