Are accountants the only professionals to go to? What can you expect them to do for you, and what will they charge? We did a brief survey, speaking to a bank, a major accountancy firm and two financial advisers. Getting specific detail on charges was hard work, although all types of professionals are now more open about charges. The problem with tax advice is that they will not know how hard the job is until they begin. None will therefore guarantee a rate in advance, though most of those we spoke to were happy to discuss the basis for charging.
As a consumer of tax advice you should ask in advance for a rough estimate. Many advisers will give a free initial interview, which should give them some idea of how complicated your affairs are. If you are worried about the bill running away with you, you could instruct your adviser to stop work and consult you when fees reach a prearranged level.
Barclays Bank gives advice through its 29 regional and branch offices. It will handle anything from a one-off problem to a full service including checking assessments, filling in returns and tax planning. Barclays always gives an estimate before starting work and 'will keep to the quote unless something unforeseen crops up'.
Fiona Price & Partners, financial advisers who specialise in women's affairs, offer a menu of standard services. They also have a budget system whereby clients can pay the bill in quarterly instalments. Their basic tax return service normally costs pounds 300 plus VAT. Their full tax service is charged by the hour. Ad hoc advice and meetings are charged at a standard pounds 75 an hour.
Problems may begin to emerge once the adviser contacts the Inland Revenue, says Fiona Price's tax specialist Eileen Doherty. There may be affairs outstanding from previous years, although the client's inquiry relates to the current year.
The adviser can act either as your agent - in which case the Inland Revenue will correspond with him or her, or you can carry on your own correspondence, with the adviser doing the return and checking your assessments.
Where the adviser acts as your agent costs will be higher. As Ms Doherty puts it: 'Every time you pick up the file, it costs.' If you handle the routine correspondence yourself, there will obviously be a saving.
Eileen Doherty's heart sinks when she sees 'two carrier bags full of papers'. Clients who go in for this sort of filing system could be paying pounds 100 an hour for a professional to sort through old sweet wrappers. Be specific about what you want and provide all the necessary documents, says Ms Doherty.
Advisers we spoke to were generally critical of accountants, with large firms seen as overcharging - from pounds 40 an hour for a junior, to pounds 300 for a senior partner. With a big department there is a danger that papers will be handed down the hierarchy from one person to another, with fees clocking up all the time.
Small local firms of accountants may spend more of their time on business work rather than on personal tax, though they will be cheaper than a large London firm and may have a good relationship with the local tax office.
Financial advisers with their own tax specialist are rather rare, but the insurance brokers Willis Corroon have their own tax department. For general financial planning, this department will work on commission or fees, whichever is appropriate to the client.
After taking tax advice clients may find out they need a pension plan or may end up in the tax department having come in for general advice. There is an advantage in having a financial adviser who knows the insurance and investment fields under the same roof as your tax adviser, though this situation does not often occur. You may have to put up with going from one professional to another.
Touche Ross is an accountancy firm which can offer financial advice as well as tax help. After a free half-hour discussion, says Bob Whiteman, private client partner, the client is charged by the hour. The average hourly cost is pounds 100-150.
Is it worthwhile to get tax advice? Most people who are employed and have no large investment income or rented circumstances can manage on their own, says Eileen Doherty, though she tells the story of a man who came to her with an Inland Revenue demand for pounds 1,400. She discovered that his mortgage interest relief had never been in Miras, so the taxman owed him several years' tax relief, amounting to pounds 7,000-8,000.
Fees may be higher when you first use an adviser because time will be spent sorting out past muddles. When people come along owing tax, says Eileen Doherty, she can usually manage to reduce the amount owed. It is useful to ask an adviser to get things up to date - a tax bill for several years' liability is not a welcome sight.
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