How to choose a CPA

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Q. I’m thinking about hiring a CPA for the first time. What should I look for?
— Need help

A. Having a professional prepare your tax return may cost you a few bucks, but it could save you thousands — and a few headaches.

There are several important questions to ask a prospective certified public accountant.

Start with making sure the pro has other clients in a similar situation to yours, said Gail Rosen, a Martinsville-based certified public accountant.

“You don’t want to be too small or big for this CPA firm. You want to be a typical client they are used to handling,” Rosen said.

Make sure the firm will have time for you. Rosen said you should ask what their policy is on returning phone calls and emails.

Plus, it’s important to know that the CPA firm is open and available year round.

“If you get a tax notice after tax season, you want to make sure there is someone there to help you,” Rosen said.

Understanding a pro’s fee structure is also important, said Cynthia Fusillo, a certified public accountant with Lassus Wherley in New Providence.

She said you should find out if you’ll be billed hourly or if there’s a flat fee for the preparation of a tax return.

“Perhaps you have other work you’re looking to farm out that doesn’t fall under the tax prep umbrella,” Fusillo said. “You would want to determine how those other services will be billed.”

You also need to know if you’d be billed, and how, if you call throughout the year with questions.

“A lot of this should be covered in an engagement letter,” Fusillo said. “You should make sure that your CPA issues one to you each year. This letter spells most everything out in an effort to avoid ambiguity and protects both of you.”

Depending on the kind of situations you’ve encountered in the past, you should ask other questions, too, such as what kind of experience the pro has with the IRS.

“Particularly if you’ve been audited in the past or if you have a high risk tax return, you’d want to be sure you hire someone who is not gun-shy in this area,” Fusillo said.

Also ask about staffing. Fusillo said you may meet with the owner of a firm, but you want to know who will actually be doing the work in the office. You’d want to know the experience levels of those other individuals, as well as their accessibility should you have questions.

Next, ask about timing.

“Ask if they will be able to prepare your taxes within the time frame you feel comfortable with,” Rosen said. “You want to know if a firm that is busy and will be put your tax return on extension if you get them your complete information in February.”

After you choose a CPA, there are steps you can take to make sure that this new relationship works well.

First, be organized.

“To the extent that you present your data in an orderly fashion, rather than haphazardly, you will cut down on billable time,” Fusillo said. “Also, spell things out. Don’t assume that your CPA knows something if you don’t actually tell him/her about it.”

Fusillo said you should hire someone you feel comfortable enough with to call with questions and run things by.

“Any CPA worth his/her weight is going to be willing and happy to advise you on matters, to the extent they are allowed by law,” she said. “Most importantly, always be upfront and honest.”

Don’t forget to Google the professional to make sure there have been no complaints against the firm and that the firm has happy clients. Also check out the pro with the New Jersey Society of CPAs either online or by phone.

Email your questions to .

This story was first posted in January 2016. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.