Communicate Effectively with Your Tax Preparer

Four tips to help you make the most of your time with your tax professional

Smiling businessman and businesswoman discussing documents at workstation in accountant's office
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Tax time is hard for all of us. Clients and accountants alike are under pressure to get their tax returns prepared accurately by the  deadline. Time is short. Attention spans are shorter. I asked Preston Ni, Professor of Communication Studies and author of several books, how can clients best communicate with their accountants at tax time? Preston Ni answered with four tips.

Clients, you can communicate effectively with your tax preparer if you...

#1. List and prioritize your questions.

"For clients, trying to be more organized is the key," Ni revealed. He recommends that clients send in their tax documents early and to make a list of questions in a bullet point format. That way, the client will be able to go down their list of questions, point by point, when talking to their preparer.

Group the bullet points by priority or categories. For example, group all your questions about Schedule A together. And group all your questions about Schedule C together.

"Ask [the] most important items first," Ni advised. "Otherwise [the meeting] is far less productive."

#2. Send your questions ahead of time

"Give [your] preparer lead time," Ni said, by sending questions to your preparer before your scheduled meeting. This gives your preparer time to gather the necessary information so he or she can properly advise you. And your preparer will not waste valuable meeting time by searching for data in your files or explanations in reference books.

"Not all preparers want this," Ni cautions; "some are more responsive via email or voicemail. Some are better face to face." He urges clients to figure out which communication method works best with their tax preparer.

You can do that by asking your preparer if it's appropriate for you to leave a voice mail or send an email outlining your questions.

If your preparer does not prefer email or voicemail, consider making a copy of your list of questions and putting that on top of your tax documents that you send in. That way, your preparer can scan over the list of questions, and research the answers in advance of your meeting.

#3. Get right to the point.

"After a quick pleasantry, get right to the point. Avoid idle conversation," Ni advises.

Make the most of your limited time with your tax preparer by outlining what you want to talk about. The goal is "to help the preparer pace him or herself," Ni says.

"Start with the most important item," Ni says. And pay attention to how you phrase your questions. Instead of asking 'can I deduct this?,'  which invites a yes/no/maybe response, trying asking questions that begin with what, when, where, or how much.

Here's an example of how to open a conversation with your tax preparer:

Hi, I want to quickly show you my documents and I have five questions. Most importantly, what does this letter I got from the IRS mean?

If you find that your time is running short, give the list of questions to your preparer and schedule a follow-up meeting.

#4. Avoid guessing.

"Base everything on facts," Ni advises.  

Your tax preparer may not be in a position to fact check everything on your organizer.

"For example if your charitable deduction is about $5,000 but [you're] not sure if you have all the proper receipts, let your preparer know that so your preparer is informed and makes more accurate reporting. Because assumptions can lead to more audit red flags."

This also helps to initiate a conversation. Because if the preparer knows that a number is an estimate, he or she can help you find the appropriate documentation you need to protect your deductions.

"Be[ing] more organized minimizes [the] client's own confusion," Ni says, "and helps preparers give you a much better return."

Preston Ni is a professor of Communication Studies and author of several books including How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People and How to Successfully Communicate with Passive-Aggressive People, which are available on his Web site at http://nipreston.com/new/publications/

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