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Top Five Tax Filing Tips

Between online tax tips, easy to use e-filing and phone lines direct to government tax offices, file it yourself has become much easier. Still, all of the fine print and changing regulations make knowing what will get a reduction in your tax bill and what will result in penalties extremely difficult.

A nationally known expert on taxation, John McGowan, Ph.D., professor of accounting at Saint Louis University, has a few useful tips to help with this process.

One powerful piece of advice that McGowan has to offer is that earlier is better when it comes to working on your taxes. Early filers avoid the last minute rush and get their refunds sooner.

Want your refund faster? Direct Deposit is the way to go

Join with the millions of taxpayers who have refunds deposited directly into their bank accounts. Direct deposit is faster and can also can be a lot safer. Recent years have seen an increase in the number of tax refund fraud scams. Giving the IRS your bank routing number is simple, safe and means your refund will be Direct Deposited with no chance of anyone else stealing it before it goes into your account.

"Each year thousands of refund checks are returned by the U.S. Post Office to the IRS as undeliverable mail," McGowan said. "Direct deposit eliminates undeliverable mail and is also the best way to guard against having a tax refund stolen."

McGowan does offer a word of caution about direct deposit -- some financial institutions do not allow a joint refund to be deposited into an individual account. Check with your bank or other financial institution to make sure your direct deposit will be accepted. Also, make sure you have the correct nine-digit routing number and your account number when selecting direct deposit.

What's in a name?

If you are a newlywed, recently divorced or have changed your name for any reason make sure that you file with your LEGAL name. McGowan says it's really important that the name that you use when you file your tax return matches the name registered with the Social Security Administration. A mismatch could unexpectedly increase a tax bill or reduce the size of any refund.

It's easy to inform the SSA of a name change by filing Form SS-5 at a local SSA office. It usually takes two weeks to have the change verified. The form is available on the agency's Web site, www.ssa.gov, by calling (800) 772-1213 and at local offices. The SSA Web site provides the addresses of local offices.

Not ready to take on tax preparation by yourself?

If you tried to do your own taxes and got lost, or you decided from the start that tax filing is best left to the professionals, McGowan advises that taxpayers choose a paid preparer wisely.

"If you choose to use a paid tax preparer, it is important that you find a qualified tax professional," he says. "Taxpayers are ultimately responsible for everything on their return even when it's prepared by someone else."

While most tax return preparers are professional and honest, taxpayers can use the following tips to choose a preparer who will offer the best service for their tax preparation needs.

- Ask about service fees. Avoid preparers who claim they can obtain larger refunds than other preparers, or those who guarantee results or base fees on a percentage of the amount of the refund.

- Plan ahead. Choose a preparer you will be able to contact after the return is filed and one that will be responsive to your needs.

- Get references. Ask questions and get references from clients who have used the tax professional before. Were they satisfied with the service received?

- Research. Check to see if the preparer has any questionable history with the Better Business Bureau, the state's board of accountancy for CPAs or the state's bar association for attorneys. Find out if the preparer belongs to a professional organization that requires its members to pursue continuing education and also holds them accountable to a code of ethics.