Most people think of personal accountants as just tax professionals. But the truth is, accountants can play a much broader role. People who visit an accountant only once a year as April approaches will get help with their taxes—and nothing else. But for those who build ongoing relationships—and give their accountants information well beyond what’s needed for tax forms—accountants often become lifelong counselors and trusted advisers. When you are seeking this level of guidance, you should make sure that you have chosen someone designated as a certified public accountant or enrolled agent, both of which are held to strict licensing, testing and ongoing education standards as well as strict ethical standards.
Anything that involves your money is the business of your accountant, and you should definitely pick up the phone if…
You’re getting married. Marriage changes the way you file taxes and involves the merging of assets and finances. A qualified accountant will help you and your spouse understand the ramifications of the ownership of assets that you each bring into the marriage…wealth that you accumulate during the marriage…structuring financial accounts…and, of course, taxes you pay before and after getting married. (It’s also wise to contact an attorney who is an estate planner before you get married to review your estate plans—perhaps one who knows and works well with your accountant.)
Accountants also can play a critical role in consulting about a prenuptial agreement or serving as a general financial adviser before a wedding unifies two people—and their money.
You’re getting divorced. When a marriage ends, everyone knows to hire a divorce lawyer—but few think to enlist the help of an accountant. There are three reasons your accountant needs to know about a pending divorce—custodial issues, money issues and tax issues. Relevant custodial issues include the division of expenses related to any children…support payments to the party who gets custody of those children…and the continuance of college funds or any other accounts that were set up in their names. Money issues include the division of real estate and other assets such as vehicles, stocks and bonds, bank accounts and retirement accounts—and the division of debt, often a thornier issue. An accountant can analyze your credit reports and help determine how best to split not just what two people own but also what they owe. Taxwise, an accountant can advise you on your postdivorce tax-filing status, allocating deductions for dependents, dividing retirement accounts without incurring IRS penalties and other issues (including the deductibility of attorney’s fees).
You’re having a child. For middle-income families, a single child is a nearly quarter-million-dollar investment—and that’s just for the first 17 years. From housing and transportation costs to food, clothing, child care, insurance and medical expenses, new arrivals bring an avalanche of new financial considerations. There are almost certainly child-related tax, spending, saving and investing ramifications (and opportunities) that you don’t know about but that your accountant does. Your family should be the first to know you’re expecting—but tell your accountant next. A visit with your accountant also is wise if you’re expecting a grandchild. Your accountant can help you redraw your will or estate plan…establish a college fund or savings account for the new arrival…or understand how your tax and financial situation might change if you’re named a guardian of the child.
A dependent is pursuing education. There are tax advantages to using a 529 college savings account to save for a child’s education, but tax-deferred growth also can be achieved through a Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA). Do you know which option is better for your family? Your accountant may be able to offer valuable advice if he/she is knowledgeable on this topic. Even if your child is in high school and already applying to colleges, the right accountant can make the critical and complicated Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) much easier to complete. Your accountant also may be able to walk you through the gauntlet of student-aid options offered by state governments and the federal government.
You plan to buy or sell investments. When you sell an investment for a profit, you’ll likely incur a capital gains tax. However, some planning might ease the tax burden. Whether you are investing in stocks, bonds, funds, real estate, precious metals or other commodities—all of which have their own individual rules about buying, selling and taxation—or more complex vehicles such as limited partnerships, futures or illiquid securities, going it alone is almost certain to cost you money at tax time that you might have been able to keep with the early counsel of an accountant.
You plan to sell your home. A portion of the profit you make from selling a home usually is tax-free, but that all depends on how long you owned it and how much you earned from the sale. It also matters how you used the home, when you sold it and how you acquired it—such as through a divorce or an inheritance—and improvements you made. Tax implications change if a co-owning spouse dies before the sale or if a spouse moves out but continues to own a portion of the home. In short, if you’re considering selling your home, call your accountant before you call your real estate agent.