Using an Online CPA Service vs. In-Person CPA for Taxes

Consider your budget and the complexity of your taxes

A business owner sits in his shop reviewing his tax forms on paper and on his laptop
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Trevor Williams/Getty Images

Every year, tax time rolls around and we start pulling together our W-2s, 1099s, and other forms. If you prefer to have someone else do your taxes for you, the traditional option has been to head to an accountant’s office and drop off your paperwork. But in response to the pandemic, full-service online tax preparation services with Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) have gone mainstream.

If you’re debating using an online CPA service vs. an in-person CPA, it’s important to consider the complexity of your tax return, how you want to interact with your CPA, and how much you want to spend. Here’s a more in-depth look at online vs. in-person CPA services to help you decide which option could make more sense for your taxes.

How Complicated Is Your Tax Return?

To start, it’s important to understand your tax situation. If you have one or two W-2 forms and a couple of 1099s from savings and investments, you have fairly simple taxes that could be easily handled by most qualified CPAs. It’s also probably faster to upload your tax forms online than it would be to drive them to a tax professional’s office.

If your taxes are this simple, you may even want to do them yourself with low-cost or free tax preparation software. If you’re confident in managing your finances, you can also use these programs for more complex situations, including self-employment, contractor, and landlord income taxes.

As your taxes get more complex, there may be benefits to working with an in-person CPA compared to an online CPA. When you use an online tax service from companies like TurboTax or H&R Block, you will probably be assigned to someone who isn’t familiar with your tax history. That isn’t a problem with simple taxes, but it may not be ideal for wealthy households, business owners, or people with complex investments.

If you use the same accountant every year, they’ll get to know your situation and may be able to offer more customized tax advice. That may make it easier to confidently hand off your tax paperwork and let someone else take care of the rest.

Are You Looking for the Cheapest Option?

If you work with a personal CPA in a small practice, you may pay a premium. Here’s a snapshot of current pricing for major online and offline tax prep services:

Online Cost Offline Cost
TurboTax $130 + $45 per state N/A
H&R Block $69 + $65 per state $69 + $65 per state
Jackson Hewitt $69 + state fee No published transparent pricing

Note: We used the cheapest standard pricing for this table, excluding free plans and special offers.

You’ll generally pay more to work with a local accountant. The national average fee for a Form 1040 tax return is $220 without itemized deductions or $323 with itemized deductions, according to the National Society of Accountants, not including fees for additional forms.

How Much Time Do You Have?

If your number-one concern is convenience, the fastest and easiest way to get your taxes done is probably with an in-person CPA. With in-person tax preparation services, you can drop off a pile of forms and your tax preparer will take care of the rest—although you may pay extra if your documents aren’t organized.

When you file online, you may have to scan and upload some documents or submit them via other means. Depending on your comfort with computers and apps, that could be a quick and easy task, or worse than getting a cavity filled at the dentist.

Either way, once you submit your files, you shouldn’t have to do much more work. However, it’s a good idea to review everything before signing off on your taxes for submission to the IRS.

If your biggest concern is getting your taxes done quickly, your best bet may be to call around for a local CPA who can prioritize your taxes, though again, you may have to pay an extra fee.

Did You Have Any Major Life Events Last Year?

If your taxes are similar from year to year, you may not have many specific tax deductions or credits to worry about. Even if you have complex investment returns, most online and offline CPAs should be able to handle your taxes.

However, if your past year included any real estate purchases, employment changes, marriage, divorce, or new kids, or you spent different parts of the year in different states or countries, you may want to enlist the help of an in-person CPA.

Even if you only want this extra hand-holding for a year or two while you learn how these new circumstances affect your taxes, it may be worth the extra cost.

Key Takeaways

If you’re still on the fence, consider these key factors when deciding between an in-person or virtual CPA. But don’t wait too long, because tax day will be here before you know it.

  • For 2020 returns, many tax software providers have added new live tax support and full-service tax preparation options.
  • In-person CPAs offer personalized service, so you can get to know each other and expect more personalized advice than you’d get from some online CPAs.
  • Online tax prep can be cheaper, even if you choose a full-service online tax preparation service. But some large chains offer competitive pricing to full-service online options, so it’s worth shopping around.
  • For many people, dropping off a pile of papers at an accountant’s office is easier than scanning or taking photos of tax forms and uploading them.
  • Personal finance is personal, and so is tax preparation. There’s no single best option for everyone. Understanding your tax situation, budget, and computer skills can help you make the best choice for your needs.