As your tax situation becomes more complex, either because you own a business or are starting to think about how to pass your estate on to later generations, the expert advice available from a tax attorney can pay big dividends and save you the time and effort of trying to make sense of all the most recent changes in the tax laws.
There is no one answer for how to find that perfect match, but start by recognizing that the relationship is one that will be based on trust and confidence, and also recognize that even among the narrow field of tax law there are specialists for particular tax problems.
Big or small? There is much to be said for the small, one-lawyer firm in town. You can expect a more personal relationship and assuming that the small firm is qualified the legal advice might well be just as good as you get from a larger law firm. But larger firms also have their advantages, the primary one being the wide variety of legal specialists that the larger firms have on hand.
When you come up with a tough question, or some unusual circumstances, the larger firm has the luxury of being able to call on other specialists to give a faster answer. But you might also pay quite a premium for that expertise.
Business taxes, estate taxes, or personal taxes? While a generalist might provide competent service across a wide variety of tax subspecialties, you should make a choice of a tax attorney in light of your best guess about what kind of tax questions you have. Personal income taxes are very different from business partnership taxation, and both of them are very different from estate taxation.
Even within personal income taxes, for example, the right attorney to represent you at an audit might not be the right attorney to represent you if you are being charged with criminal tax fraud. One is likely a former IRS investigator, the other is a criminal defense attorney with experience in defending white collar crimes.
Through experience, a tax attorney might develop knowledge of all many related areas of tax law, but before leaping into a relationship with an attorney you should make sure that the experience is there in the area of tax that you now will be the basis of your professional relationship.
Laws vary from state to state on how attorneys are allowed to advertise, and in fact in many locations attorneys are prevented from stating that they specialize in a particular area of law. So it might take a bit of digging to learn an attorney’s credentials. A good first step is to talk to friends or associates who have been in need of the type of tax help that you need and see if they have recommendations.
Interview your potential attorney – if they are worth the money that you will be paying them, they will consider it normal to have to make the case for why they should be your attorney. Ask what their experience is, ask if they can point to specific examples of cases or clients that they have handled that are similar to your needs. And ask how they go about getting answers to questions that are outside their normal area of expertise.
You will invest quite a bit of time, money, and perhaps even your freedom from prison on the skills that a tax attorney brings to your relationship. The time you take before starting that relationship will pay off later when you have the right person in that position of trust to protect your tax interests.