Some guidelines to whether you should seek a tax accountant

Who really needs a tax accountant? And if you should need one, how do you find one? A tax accountant is essential for some people: the self-employed and those with salaries high enough ($75,000 or more) to warrant considering deferred compensation or some other means of cutting taxes.

Anyone with significant unearned income is a likely candidate for an accountant's services, says Jonathan E. Flitter, manager of employee benefits at Touche, Ross in Boston, ''even just a second home, or a few thousand dollars invested in oil and gas.''

Then there are circumstances that would justify hiring special-occasion tax advice. Richard Shebairo, tax partner at Arthur Young & Co. in New York, cites several: ''Anyone going into business, or dissolving a business, or getting in or out of any investment other than just a stock purchase; anyone drawing up a will, or settling an estate, or doing estate planning, needs a tax accountant.

''Also, anyone entering into a (high-level) compensation agreement or doing retirement planning.''

Anyone going through a divorce should consult a tax accountant - before any property settlement is reached, says Thomas Foley, vice-president for special services at IDS/American Express in Minneapolis.

These advisers add that anyone needing help for special circumstances needs it when the circumstances arise, or appear about to arise, not the following April 14.

But what about the ordinary mortgage-and-station-wagon crowd? Do these people need a tax accountant?

''I guess what I would say is that anybody who can itemize should have an accountant,'' says Mr. Shebairo.

And Mr. Foley says, ''Anyone who's not itemizing should have some help, whether from a commercial tax preparer or a CPA. The government is not giving money away with the standard deduction.''

Jay Rabinowitz, vice-president and manager of financial planning for Merrill Lynch in New York, has a rule of thumb: ''If you have significant deductions, and your taxable income is $25,000 or more, which means your gross income is in the $30,000 to $35,000 range, it's time to think about finding a tax accountant.''

Practically speaking, Mr. Rabinowitz says, it's paying interest on a mortgage that makes finding a tax accountant worthwhile. Itemized deductions are what you need tax advice for, and itemizing isn't possible unless your deductions come to more than $2,300 (or $3,400 for married couples filing jointly).

On the other hand, once you are itemizing, all kinds of other deductions are worth claiming: sales tax, the value of clothes dropped off at the Salvation Army - and your accountant's fees.

Of course, you can also deduct the fee from a commercial tax-preparation service. Many experts hasten to say that the well-known tax preparers do a perfectly fine job for their customers. If all you need is someone to hold your hand through the agonies of the 1040 form, these people may be what you need.

''It's like being at college and taking freshman English,'' says Mr. Rabinowitz. ''You don't need the head of the English department to teach you; you just need someone who knows more than you do, and that's probably going to be a graduate assistant.''

Many people seeking professional help with their taxes, Mr. Rabinowitz says, ''are looking for real easy ways to save money. They want some kind of magic.'' But tax preparers can run through a standard checklist of deductions. ''They can ask you, 'Did you buy storm windows this year?' as well as an accountant.''

Although, tax accountants can contribute suggestions for better long-term financial management - if they are used properly. ''We joke that people don't have a tax accountant; they have a guy they go see on April 14 with a shoebox,'' Mr. Rabinowitz says. ''And then these people come to us financial planners and say, 'My tax accountant never does any planning.' Well, of course he doesn't, if you come to him on April 14. Then all he can think of is the returns he has to bang out. The time to see your tax accountant is Jan. 1 - of the previous year.''

Once you've decided you need an accountant, how do you find one? And what about having your lawyer or financial planner do your taxes? Many lawyers prepare tax returns for their clients but wish they didn't have to; many financial planners simply do not prepare returns.

Mr. Shebairo notes, ''This is an age of specialization.'' Specialists don't want to make recommendations outside their specialty; but you can call on them for referrals to an accountant. They will have a professional stake in making sound recommendations. Your trade association can be a good source of referrals for accountants attuned to the subtleties of your business or profession.

You might also try calling your state or local society of accountants. But, warns Howard Dragutsky, partner at Edward Isaacs & Co. in New York, ''Just ask, 'Who's an accountant you can recommend?' Don't ask, 'Is So-and-So any good?' ''

Once you have a few names, it's a good idea to make calls to determine that an accountant does indeed handle your kind of case and what his fees are - including any fee for an initial consultation. ''Don't be bashful,'' the experts say. And accountants want prospective clients to remember that, as one puts it, ''My firm is not an eleemosynary institution.''

Should you interview accountants? Mr. Foley recommends asking for references and says most accountants would offer a 30-minute free consultation.

Louis Levy, a partner at H.J. Behrman & Co. in New York says you should ask, ''When do I start incurring a fee?'' but should expect a free consultation.

But Mr. Rabinowitz argues that it's absurd to think a professional can afford to grant free interviews. And Mr. Dragutsky says, ''If you're going to be doing spend an hour with you just to talk.''

Mr. Flitter, however, says, ''I expect that the kind of people who are coming to see me are shopping around, considering two or three other people'' with whom they will want an hour's interview.

How do you know when you need the services of a Big Eight accounting firm? The question brings to mind the old joke about knowing whether you can afford a yacht. But, says Mr. Flitter, ''We wouldn't want to encourage someone with less than $500 to $1,000 per year in business with us.'' Those with less complicated needs should consider a regional or local accounting firm, he says.

You don't want higher-powered help than you need. Some accountants admit privately that their most troublesome business is personal income tax returns for people, often longtime clients, who don't really need a CPA - but complain loudly about the bill.

On the other hand, if you don't get an accountant, you may miss out not only on deductions but on ways to shift income, such as Clifford trusts, that are available even to salaried people.

Mr. Flitter says that professional tax advice should pay for itself with tax savings that are a ''high multiple'' of the accountant's fee itself. But since tax savings are hard to measure, many accountants, are hesitant to formulate such a rule of thumb.

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