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Need help with taxes? Hire a professional

Jim HamillThe tax law is complicated. This means many people want to hire someone to help with their taxes. One of the common questions that I get is, “how do you pick someone to be your tax adviser?”

For what it’s worth, here’s my advice. Find yourself a professional. How do you know when you found a professional? Try the duck analogy. If they look like a professional, walk like a professional, and talk like a professional, they’re probably a professional.

We usually think professionals are athletes. These people are well-known. Their fame and wealth is often envied by their fans.

But this column is about lesser-known professionals, and they come in many packages. The lesser known make professional status by how they act rather than by their fame.

What do Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Brooks Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Maury Wills and Harmon Killebrew have in common? The easy answer – all professional baseball players. Except for Wills, all in the Hall of Fame.

The harder answer – all struck out, consecutively, by softball pitcher Eddie “The King” Feigner. I saw Feigner barnstorm with his four-player team, the number he needed only so someone could bat if the bases were loaded.

Feigner struck people out from second base. He struck people out while blindfolded. He struck people out from behind his back. Best of all, he often gave some of the gate to local charities. He was a professional.

Actor Robert Young was the perfect TV doctor, Marcus Welby, M.D. Many loved him and even asked the actor for medical advice. Others said his portrayal of a doctor was unrealistic. In that same era my sister and I had a family doctor who was the father of a friend of mine. He came to our house to care for us. He and his son came to all the father-son camping trips we took for a boys’ organization that I now cannot name because it is very politically incorrect.

When I fell out of the top bunk and woke everyone in the cabin but myself, my doctor was there for me. When three of the boys fell through ice on another trip he was there. And he could wiggle his ears.

He stopped being there. Instead he went to Vietnam with an Army surgical unit. On his return flight to the U.S. from Phan Rang, South Vietnam, his plane crashed, killing him and 10 others. One of his legacies was to show me and my sister that Marcus Welby did exist. We learned what a professional looks like.

What identifies a tax professional is not just being paid. Observe how they act and even how they make you act.

If the first question in a get-to-know-you session is “how much money do you want to get back?” they’re not a professional. If they tell you “everybody” claims a certain deduction, they’re not a professional.

Emerson said “the louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” Being a professional is not about blowing smoke in meetings or even making money. It’s more subtle and therefore harder to identify.

So if you’re looking for a professional tax adviser, and as another old saying goes “this isn’t your first rodeo,” I think you’ll know one when you interview them. They don’t need to wiggle their ears. Just trust your instincts.

Once you find a professional, trust their judgment. You are the customer, but the customer of a professional needs to understand the imbalance of knowledge.

You wouldn’t tell your doctor how to treat your tumor. You instead trust that they follow that part of the Hippocratic Oath that means “first, do no harm.” They will do what’s in your best interest.

Tax professionals work for you but the nature of their work – as is so for all professionals – is first to do you no harm. They know more than you do about their craft. They know what you need, even if it’s less than what you want.

So if you hire a professional let them be a professional. Follow their advice. If, upon closer examination, they don’t look, walk and talk like a professional, it’s time to change. Otherwise, count your blessings.

James R. Hamill is the Director of Tax Practice at Reynolds, Hix & Co. in Albuquerque. He can be reached at