Tax preparation is the process of preparing tax returns, often income tax returns, often for a person other than the taxpayer, and generally for compensation. Tax preparation may be done by the taxpayer with or without the help of tax preparation software and online services. Tax preparation may also be done by a licensed professional such as an attorney, certified public accountant or enrolled agent, or by an unlicensed tax preparation business. Because United States income tax laws are considered to be complicated, many taxpayers seek outside assistance with taxes (59.2% of individual tax returns in 2007 were filed by paid preparers). The remainder of this article describes tax preparation by someone other than the taxpayer.
Some states have licensing requirements for anyone who prepares tax returns for a fee and some for fee-based preparation of state tax returns only. The Free File Alliance provides free tax preparation software for individuals with less than $58,000 of adjusted gross income for tax year 2010. People who make more than $58,000 can use Free File Fillable Forms, electronic versions of U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) paper forms.
Until 2011, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service did not have a requirement for national registration of paid tax return preparers in the United States. However, effective January 1, 2011, new rules required the registration of almost all paid federal tax return preparers. Many of the new rules, however, were soon struck down by a federal court.
The new rules had required that some paid preparers pass a national tax law exam and undergo continuing education requirements. Persons who are certified public accountants (CPAs), attorneys or enrolled agents were required to register, but were not required to take the exam and were not subject to the continuing education requirements.
For purposes of the registration requirement, the IRS had defined a "tax return preparer" as "an individual who, for compensation, prepares all or substantially all of a federal tax return or claim for refund." Beginning in mid-2011, tax return preparers (other than CPAs, attorneys, and enrolled agents and a few others) had generally been required to take and pass a competency test to become a registered tax return preparer.
Tax return preparers who had a Practitioner Tax Identification Number (PTIN) before testing was to become available were to have until December 31, 2013, to pass the competency test. New tax return preparers would have been required to pass the competency test before they could obtain a PTIN. The IRS had indicated that the new rules would have applied to all kinds of federal tax returns, including income taxes and payroll taxes. A new continuing education requirement of 15 hours per year would have been imposed on tax return preparers (except for CPAs, attorneys, enrolled agents, and a few others).
In 2013, however, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia struck down most of these rules in the Loving case, holding that the Internal Revenue Service had no authority to require competency exams for tax preparers. The Court did indicate its decision did not affect the PTIN requirement. This requirement remains in effect.
All tax return preparers, including those tax return preparers who are attorneys, certified public accountants, or enrolled agents, are still required to have a PTIN. This rule continues to be effective for preparation of any federal tax returns after December 31, 2010.
The cost of preparing and filing all business and personal tax returns is estimated to be $100 to $150 billion each year. According to a 2005 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the efficiency cost of the tax system—the output that is lost over and above the tax itself—is between $240 billion and $600 billion per year. For tax return preparation, Americans spent roughly 20% of the amount collected in taxes (estimating the compliance costs and efficiency costs is difficult because neither the government nor taxpayers maintain regular accounts of these costs). Tax preparation businesses have been plagued with controversies over Refund anticipation loans. Intuit, the developer of tax preparation software TurboTax, has lobbied to prevent the IRS from setting up a Web portal for electronic tax filing. This lobbying resulted in the introduction of the proposed Taxpayer First Act of 2019.
The ReadyReturn program in California, begun as a pilot in 2005 (revived in 2007 and later integrated into CalFile) sends taxpayers believed to need simple tax returns a proposed draft of a return. Taxpayers can either accept, modify or ignore the draft, while completing the tax return as they would without the draft. The process is similar to receiving a credit card bill where the recipient can dispute charges the recipient did not authorize. This system is also in place in other countries, including Denmark, Sweden, and Spain. Intuit and the tax preparation service H&R Block have disclosed lobbying Congress against setting up a similar system for federal U.S. tax returns. Intuit spent about $3 million on lobbying in California from 2005 to 2010, where it unsuccessfully opposed the ReadyReturn program.
There are many companies and local businesses that offer tax preparation services through their branches. The following are the most well known:
Some popular tax preparation software, particularly in the United States includes:
The Free File Alliance is a group of tax preparation companies that have partnered with the Internal Revenue Service to provide free electronic tax filing services to U.S taxpayers meeting certain guidelines.
- IRS - Tax Stats at a Glance
- "Proposed New Requirements for Tax Return Preparers," Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Dep't of the Treasury, at 
- Tax Policy: Summary of Estimates of the Costs of the Federal Tax System by the U.S. Government Accountability Office
- NPR - IRS Urges E-Filing — But by Vendors Only, Please
- Elliott, Justin (April 9, 2019). "Congress Is About to Ban the Government From Offering Free Online Tax Filing. Thank TurboTax: A bill supported by Democrats and Republicans would make permanent a program that bars the IRS from ever developing its own online tax filing service". ProPublica.
- "How the Maker of TurboTax Fought Free, Simple Tax Filing". Pro Publica. March 26, 2013.
- Lessig, Lawrence (2011). Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress -- and a Plan to Stop It. Twelve. p. 201. ISBN 978-0-446-57643-7.