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2:36 am
Mon April 9, 2012

What Do You Owe In Taxes? Depends Who's Counting

Originally published on Wed May 2, 2012 11:58 am

In 2012, the federal tax return deadline is Tuesday, April 17 — so if you haven't already filed your income tax return, you have about one week left to shop around for different options to finish your taxes, or request an extension.

If you're wondering if you're better off filing your federal and state income tax returns through an online tax preparation service, a standard CPA (certified public accountant), or a more elaborate tax specialty firm, you may want to read an article over at Bloomberg Businessweek called "Joel Stein Has Four Accountants."

As he tells Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep, Stein plugged his financial results from 2011 into tax services that ranged from TaxSlayer.com to his father's Staten Island accountant.

One paragraph of Stein's article explains his motives:

"This year I really wanted to find out: What level accountant do I need? Can I do my returns myself using websites that promise to guide me through the process? Can H&R Block handle it? Is my current accountant great? Or would a high-end accountant know all the loopholes and get me so much money back that his fee would be worth it? Would any of them slip me the results of the Academy Awards?"

Stein's tax situation isn't as straightforward as some. The writer's income spiked to around $400,000 last year, he says, thanks to a book deal he signed. And because he often works from his house in Los Angeles, he also has the option of claiming a deduction for his home office — something he got conflicting advice about.

Here's the breakdown of services Stein tried out, and how much they cost:

  • TaxSlayer.com — $30
  • H&R Block — $400
  • Family Wealth Group at RBZ of Los Angeles — $1,200
  • Howie Halbreich of Staten Island — $400

Starting out at TaxSlayer — which, as a NASCAR sponsor, is "the preferred accounting method of Dale Earnhardt Jr.," Stein says — things went a little awry. Stein admits that he may have made some mistakes in entering his data.

And the results were shocking: The online service promised Stein a combined federal and state refund of $120,000, with about two-thirds of the money coming from the U.S. government.

Upon seeing those numbers, Stein tells Inskeep, his reaction was that "I have a Romney-like hedge fund that I apparently didn't know about."

So, he took the TaxSlayer documents along to his next stop: an H&R Block office in Los Angeles.

"When I showed the 80-page return to the H&R Block guy, he said that the IRS wouldn't bother calling me — they would just send a car straight to my house," Stein says.

After looking at his data, an H&R Block "tax associate" told Stein he needs to pay more than $2,000 — sending $1,227 to the IRS and an additional $1,160 to California's Franchise Tax Board.

That led Stein to return to TaxSlayer and correct his mistakes — the site eventually told him he would get nearly $17,000 from the federal government, but that he would owe California around $22,000.

Another accounting company he tried was RBZ, a venerable firm with plush offices overlooking Los Angeles.

"I kind of thought high-end accountants found all kinds of loopholes that only they knew about," Stein says. "That's not quite how it works."

Instead, the firm's adviser tried to help Stein position his finances so he could help his family, with plans for his son's education and possible care for his parents. The RBZ method would leave him with no refund, and owing around $4,544 for combined state and federal taxes.

Stein also gave his tax return info to an old family favorite, Howie Halbreich — a man he has never met but who has handled his taxes for more than 20 years, since Stein left college.

Halbreich, who also does Stein's father's taxes, already had all of his information on hand. He told Stein that he stood to receive a federal refund of $1,488 and owed California $1,019 — for a net gain of $469.

"That means I stick with Howie," Stein says.

Asked what it means for other taxpayers, he says, "They should go to Howie."

In his article, Stein wrote that Halbreich "makes the process painless, which — more than a fat return or even a long-term plan of how to beat the government — is what I'm really looking for."

In addition to the ones Stein tried out, other popular choices include TurboTax — which Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner used when he neglected to report all of his income in his 2001 tax return.

And, if your income was under $57,000 in 2011, you can also use the IRS website to file your return free of charge. If you need help finding professional assistance, the IRS site also has a search tool.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In the current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, the writer Joel Stein makes an admission...

JOEL STEIN: Though I've tried many times, I've never read James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" or my own tax returns.

INSKEEP: Too painful. So he hires someone else to do the work. But, of course, there are many options if you're going to pay someone else to do your taxes, and Joel Stein is going to help us work through them as he did for Bloomberg.

Mr. Stein, welcome to the program.

STEIN: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: You looked at four types of tax services, which are kind of the range of ideas that are out there. What are the options?

STEIN: Well, I went to an online service. I chose TaxSlayer.com because they have an awesome name.

INSKEEP: Thirty bucks to do your taxes, right?

STEIN: That's both state and federal.

INSKEEP: OK.

STEIN: And then I went to H&R Block.

INSKEEP: All right.

STEIN: I went to my normal accountant that I've been using since college.

INSKEEP: This is several hundred dollars now.

STEIN: Yeah. And then I went to a very high-end accountant here in Los Angeles.

INSKEEP: And when you say high-end, how much does it cost to get your taxes done at the high end?

STEIN: It would've been 1,200.

INSKEEP: OK. So you had these different options and your question is what?

STEIN: My question is: who gets me the most money back? You know, they do more than just get you returns; they kind of help you plan for the future. There's other things to take into account.

INSKEEP: OK. So let's work through the different options here. Who did you try first?

STEIN: I went to TaxSlayer.com first. It asks you a lot of very simple questions, and you give either yes or no answers, you punch in the amount and then it gives you your returns. It's the preferred accounting method of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Does he get an endorsement out of that?

STEIN: He drives the TaxSlayer.com Chevrolet.

INSKEEP: Oh, that is awesome.

STEIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: OK. So let's see how it did for you. What was your tax return, if any?

STEIN: Let's start with the fact that I'm not good at math or inputting things or using computers. So TaxSlayer told me I was going to get about $120,000 back.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: A $120,000 tax return, I wasn't aware you were making that many millions of dollars that you would be entitled to a tax return...

STEIN: Yeah. I have a Romney-like hedge fund apparently that I didn't know about.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: So there was some error - garbage in, garbage out. You put in the wrong numbers or something and TaxSlayer didn't pick up on that and claimed a huge return for you.

STEIN: When I showed the 80-page return to the H&R Block guy, he said that the IRS wouldn't bother calling me; they would just send a car straight to my house.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Well, that leads us then to the H&R Block guy. What do you pay H&R Block?

STEIN: Three to 400 bucks.

INSKEEP: OK. And how did they do?

STEIN: It was great. It was like a cheery place. They had like macaroons and coffee when you walked in and it was very professional; it was like going to a LensCrafters. It wasn't that cheap, but it was like they could take care of you.

INSKEEP: What was your tax refund there?

STEIN: They said I owed the state and federal governments a little over two grand.

INSKEEP: So on a strict monetary basis, TaxSlayer.com...

STEIN: Oh, yeah.

INSKEEP: ...much more effective than H&R Block, but didn't involve any prison time.

STEIN: That was the tradeoff I had to think about.

INSKEEP: Let me go to the high end next, if I might. You hired the most expensive accountant, pretty much, that you could find. And what was that experience like?

STEIN: Great. They validated my parking. They gave me water. The accountant was this super cool guy who played guitar for me. It was a wonderful experience.

INSKEEP: And how'd they do?

STEIN: I kind of thought the high-end accountants found all kinds of loopholes that only they knew about. That's not quite how it works. Like, there's only so much information you can program in unless you lie. So, yeah, apparently I owe almost five grand.

INSKEEP: So basically, what they were thinking about was being as conservative as possible.

STEIN: Yeah. They more interested in talking to me about like my son's education and taking care of my parents and kind of planning I might do for the long-term future. But as far as this year's returns, yeah, they were very conservative.

INSKEEP: And so let's do one more and go home to the tax accountant that you used for years.

STEIN: What I love about this guy, Howie Halbreich, is I don't ever have to even talk to him. I've never met him. He's been doing my taxes for more than 20 years, doing my dad's taxes for even longer. I just mail him some stuff or send him some emails. He asked me a couple more questions. He eFiles for me. He's got my credit card information, my bank account. I don't have to do anything. I don't have to sign anything.

INSKEEP: So this guy - if I'm not mistaken - was the mid-range cost here, about the same as H&R Block.

STEIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: You paid about 400 bucks. How did he do for you?

STEIN: He got me $469 back, about what I pay him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Maybe enough left over to buy yourself a little lunch or something like that.

STEIN: Exactly. I'm pretty excited.

INSKEEP: OK. So just to review - TaxSlayer got you an insanely large refund...

STEIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...that would surely get you in prison. H&R Block was a reasonable experience and cost you some money. The gold-plated accountant actually cost you a bunch of money. But Howie, the family standby, got you the tiniest of profits, about breaking even. What do those results mean for you?

STEIN: That means I stick with Howie.

INSKEEP: And what does it mean for everybody else?

STEIN: They should go to Howie.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Howie's going to be inundated, if he's not already.

STEIN: He's going to beat H&R Block. There's going to be a Howie on every corner in every mall.

INSKEEP: Well, Joel Stein, thanks for helping us through all this.

STEIN: It was fun. I mean it wasn't fun, but it was nice talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: He wrote in the current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.