Calling For Tax Advice The Inexpensive Way

With this article, Publetariat premieres its new Business End department, and resident tax expert Julian Block. Indie authorship is a business, after all, and it’s important for indie authors and small imprints to keep on top of tax matters.

Internal Revenue Code changes have averaged one per day over the past eight years — with 500 revisions in 2008 alone and 235 in 2009. Who’s counting? Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, announced the statistics in her annual report to Congress. An independent organization within the Internal Revenue Service, the Taxpayer Advocate Service helps taxpayers resolve complaints with the agency when problems cannot be resolved through normal channels.

 
Will Advocate Olson’s reports convince our lawmakers to draw back from their drawing board? Not during these troubled times. Expect them to enact even more alterations to an already confusing code in the immediate future.
 
How do individuals who need to focus on tax planning all year long keep on top of all those major and minor modifications? Most decide to become clients of tax professionals — advice-givers adept at calming the concerns of the affluent and nimbly sidestepping pitfalls while capitalizing on opportunities to diminish, delay or deep-six paying amounts that otherwise would swell IRS coffers. And that kind of advice does not come cheap.
 
In locales like my neck of the woods near New York City, such clients should expect to pay hourly fees of several hundred dollars and up for guidance. Help is available from lawyers, CPAs, financial planners, and enrolled agents — i.e., persons licensed to practice before the IRS who are neither attorneys nor CPAs, but who are former IRS employees or have passed rigorous tax examinations administered by the IRS.
 
Fortunately, pricey professionals are not the only source of help for Americans worried about their financial futures and retirement prospects. Cheaper alternatives are available. One option is to sign up at places like high schools and community colleges for inexpensive adult education courses on various aspects of personal finance — for instance, tactics that trim taxes or methods for investment selection.
 
But people who need financial advice should be wary of free lunch seminars that are actually showcases for hucksters. Seminar sponsors usually promote their programs as educational events, with free meals thrown in. But the seminars generally feature hard-sell pitches for substandard investments designed to enrich the sponsors — many may be Uncle Bernie wannabes — and impoverish investors, especially unwitting seniors.
 
It is also possible to obtain advice at no cost from knowledgeable, disinterested professionals. This resource is available to an ever-increasing number of individuals who belong to affinity groups or work for companies that offer such advice. Individuals eligible for assistance can call centers staffed primarily by financial planners who offer advice only — untainted by compensation linked to commissions on product sales.
 
But what is available for people in need of instant advice who are without access to such call-in centers? Thanks to technology, there are person-to-person Internet advice sites that let them talk to experts on topics like taxes and investing. It is important to note, however, that these sites do not vouch for the accuracy of their experts’ advice.
 
A major purveyor of telephone counseling is Keen.com, a company that describes itself as “Your Personal Advisor,” offering live, immediate advice (and hand-holding) for everyday life.  Keen provides computer tech help, career coaching, astrologic readings, relationship advice, credit counseling, and just about everything between. Unless you have need for such services, ignore them, and head straight for Keen’s tax-planning experts. (In the interests of full disclosure, I was among the first dispensers of tax advice recruited by Keen when it debuted in 2000.)
 
Keen’s specialists cover a broad range of financial topics  —  anything from tax-efficient maneuvers that callers can implement themselves, to new theories to test out on real-world advisers, to portfolio diversification strategies.
 
Keen allows callers to check out advisors’ backgrounds and client ratings. Another confidence booster is that Keen makes the call to both parties — ensuring that its online specialists remain clueless about callers’ names, phone numbers, and other personal information, unless callers choose to divulge such details.
 
What does a service like this cost, and how does one pay? As with most Internet sites, Keen accepts credit cards and bills per minute, but frequently discounts fees for first-timers. There is no minimum fee commitment, and callers decide when to conclude the conversations, so they are in control at all times. The result is helpful advice at far less than the cost of in-person sessions.
 
That noted, Keen is not ideal in all situations. At least some of its mavens will lack your mom’s smarts and accessibility, and none can compete with her, whose 24/7/365 counsel comes at no cost at all! Still, Keen is particularly well suited for several common situations. Its advisors can provide inexpensive reassurance when taxpayers want to verify that information received from their advisors or the IRS is correct or when their returns are being audited.
 
Keen is particularly useful during tax filing season, when other advice lines may be overloaded. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), taxpayers trying to dial into the IRS telephone assistance system for comparable help may be stymied by busy signals or put on hold, only to endure lengthy waits. But Keen’s advisors offer prompt answers.
 
Throw in another plus for last-minute filers choosing Keen over the IRS: They improve their chances for obtaining advice on circumventing stiff, nondeductible penalties for late filing (as much as 25 percent of the balance due on a return submitted after the due date) and late payment. The IRS charges interest on penalties and back taxes. Whereas taxpayers can count on Keen’s availability on April 15, that is the day when “abandoned calls” — the GAO’s term for calls to IRS telephones that go unanswered — surge. And, in case you forgot, that is also the day the Titanic sank.
 
For Keen’s directory of tax advisors, go to  http://www.keen.com/categorylist/Taxes/41/. You can select one by clicking on a “Call Now” icon, or you can dial 1-800-ASK-KEEN (275-5336) and follow the voice prompts. That may be all it takes to speak with someone who can staunch the potential hemorrhaging to the IRS.
 
Julian Block, an attorney in Larchmont, NY, has been cited as a "leading tax professional" (New York Times), "an accomplished writer on taxes" (Wall Street Journal) and “an authority on tax planning” (Financial Planning Magazine). His books include “Tax Tips For Small Businesses: Savvy Ways For Writer, Photographers, Artists and Other Freelancers To Trim Taxes To The Legal Minimum,” praised by law professor James E. Maule of Villanova University as "An easy-to-read and well-organized explanation of the tax rules. Business owners would be well advised to buy this book." To order his books, visit www.julianblocktaxexpert.com. Copyright 2010 Julian Block. All rights reserved.
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