While you might think you're ill-equipped to handle filing your own taxes, you don't necessarily need a professional. Really.
First of all, as complicated as the tax code has become (surely by now you've heard the political blathering), the assistance available has grown measurably more sophisticated. For starters, the Internal Revenue Service Web site gives users access to tax rules, filing procedures and downloadable forms, while tomes such as J.K. Lasser's Tax Guide and the Ernst & Young Tax Guide provide clear, concise explanations and illustrations of virtually any issue you might encounter.
Then there's the tax software, largely structured so that you hardly feel like you're even filling out a 1040. The two clear leaders are Kiplinger's TaxCut from H&R Block ($24.95) and Intuit's TurboTax (from the makers of Quicken; $29.95). Both use a question-and-answer process to enter your information on the tax forms, although you can access the forms directly at any point. The interview style helps users ascertain eligibility for deductions and credits, as well as explaining some tax code arcana, and checking for potential errors on the return.
You can use a Web version of TurboTax, for which you don't pay until you file electronically or print. Fees for the Web version range depending on what software version you opt for. H&R Block also offers a Web version of TaxCut for $29.95, and another service that includes a review of your return by an H&R Block professional, for $49.95. Or you can have an H&R Block pro do your taxes online starting at $99.95 (early-season discounts apply to most of these services).
Some situations should prompt you to consult a professional. If you've exercised incentive stock options, have actively traded stocks, or have a significant amount of unreimbursed employee expenses, for example, a professional tax preparer can probably better assess your filing requirements and tax consequences. Also, if in the past tax year you became divorced or widowed, or suffered some other catastrophic event (such as home damage caused by a natural disaster), consider consulting a professional.
Choosing a professional, however, might seem as daunting as preparing your taxes. Companies such as H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt offer reliable services for a reasonable fee, and often (but not always) employ certified public accountants. But they do little more than fill out the forms on your behalf, working only with the information you give them.
If you have a very complicated return, or if you're looking for a more thorough analysis of your situation -- including planning advice for next year -- you should consider finding a CPA in your area. Nothing beats a friend's recommendation when choosing a professional, but if you're at a loss you can check with the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) for suggestions.