Complex tax problems can pose a serious challenge to your finances and future. They can lead to expensive civil penalties and fines. They also could result in jail time in cases of fraud or evasion.

Rather than risk your money or your freedom, you can effectively deal with tax problems by hiring a tax attorney to represent you. You can retain the best tax lawyer by using these simple strategies.

Determine Your Legal Needs

Before you hire a tax lawyer, you first need to determine what your precise legal needs are. Do you have back tax returns to file? Are you being audited and need an attorney to represent you during the proceedings? Perhaps you want to contest penalties and fines the IRS levied against you or your business.

Once you determine what types of legal needs you have, you can then decide how best to proceed with hiring a tax lawyer. You will know what role you want your attorney to play in your case and what types of services you will want him or her to offer to you.

Identifying your legal needs also lets you determine in what type of court your case is being heard. Issues with municipal or county taxes most likely will be heard in state court. However, IRS tax issues will be heard and decided in federal court. You will want an attorney who can argue at either court level and help you win your case.

Finally, you may want to retain a tax attorney who has certification or recommendations from legal organizations like the American Bar Association. These awards mean that your lawyer has proven his or her skill in court and has attained a certain amount of professional finesse that makes him or her a valuable asset in tax cases. You can ask for these credentials when you first meet with your prospective attorney and before you decide to put him or her on retainer.

Use Directories and Referrals

Another simple way to find a good attorney to take your tax case involves using directories and referral resources. One of the best sources of information for finding a lawyer to retain is your family or circle of friends. Chances are that someone you know or are related to has dealt with tax issues similar to yours. This person can refer you to a lawyer who can represent you and help you get the results you want.

Likewise, you can go online to search for legal referral or directory websites that will provide detailed reviews at little to no cost. Most of the legal referral websites are free to use and available anytime day or night. They list the tax lawyers who practice in your area and provide in-depth reviews of what services they offer and what kind of ratings they have with professional or legal organizations.

Many of these sites also invite former and current clients to provide reviews of attorneys. You should read these reviews carefully and use them to determine what lawyers you should vet during the hiring process. Based on them, you can get an idea of what kinds of services you might receive as a client of a particular attorney.

Finally, perhaps your best source of information for hiring a tax attorney will come for your own state bar association. The state bar functions as a referral resources for the public. It maintains a lengthy and current directory of lawyers in all legal specialties. You can typically call it or go to its website to get a no-cost referral for a tax lawyer in your city or state.

The state bar also keeps detailed records of what kinds of ratings attorneys have and what credentials they have earned throughout the course of their careers. You may have much of the information you need about an attorney even before you set up an initial consultation with him or her.

Schedule and Attend a Free Consultation

Most attorneys in all legal specialties offer a free initial consultation with clients. This free meeting typically lasts about an hour. During that time, you are free to ask any questions or have concerns addressed. The attorney likewise will assess your case and tell you what kind of outcome you can expect if you put him or her on retainer.

It is not realistic for you to expect the attorney to do all of the talking during this free initial meeting. You should use it as an opportunity to give specifics about your case and what kind of outcome you ideally would like to achieve if you hire the attorney to represent you.

Further, you should not rely on your own memory to keep track of the answers the lawyer provides to the questions and concerns you pose during the consultation. You should go into the meeting with a written list of questions. You should take notes and even ask for written proof of the attorney’s answers. You should then study this information and decide if you want to retain the lawyer to take your case.

A free consultation can be a valuable source of information that is available to you at no cost. The hour during which the meeting is held can provide a foundation upon which you can build a case to take to court if necessary and win. Most lawyers allow clients to schedule these consultations online on their law firms’ websites.

Identify the Key Players in Your Tax Case

The attorney you put on retainer is not the only person who will be working on your case. In fact, most attorneys have junior lawyers, law students, law clerks, paralegals, and secretaries working alongside them. These additional people carry out a variety of functions during the building and presentation of a case. They more than likely will get to know the most intimate details of your tax situation.

As a client, you may or may not get the opportunity to meet the other people who will have a hand in the making and arguing of your case. With that in mind, it is entirely fair for you to ask your attorney who will be assisting in the process and what role they will play. You have every right to know if these people are qualified to work on your case and what functions they will serve as the attorney prepares it to go before a judge or jury.

You also have the right to know with whom you will be in regular contact while your case is being worked on by the attorney. Will the attorney himself or herself be taking your calls and answering your emails? Will your communications be handed off to the secretary or paralegal to answer? If the attorney will be the one maintaining contact with you, how fast can you expect a reply if you send an email or make a phone call?

For your own peace of mind, you should find out these details so you know what people will have a figurative hand in your case. You also have the right to expect a timely response to your phone calls and emails. You should ask these questions and get solid answers in writing if possible before putting the attorney on retainer.

Understand the Attorney or Law Firm’s Fee Structure

Before you put a tax lawyer on retainer, it is vital that you first ask about and fully understand his or her fee structure. Lawyers have considerable leeway in how they charge clients. Some attorneys charge by the hour and add on additional expenses for factors like copying and courier services. Other lawyers charge clients on a contingency or sliding fee scale.

Most attorneys regardless of specialty charge an upfront retainer. The retainer fee can cost upwards of several hundred dollars and must be paid in full before the tax attorney will start working your case. The retainer many times is not eligible to be included in a payment plan and cannot be deferred until the outcome of your case is decided.

While you typically will have to pay the retainer in full, you might be allowed to make payments on the legal services provided to you. Depending on the nature of your case and the attorney you hire, the fees might be based on your income.

You also might be allowed to make monthly payments toward what you owe to the law firm or lawyer. In some instances, a lawyer might agree to levy an asset like a tax refund that you are expecting in the near future to settle what you owe in lawyer fees.

In select instances, the attorney might work on a contingency basis. This basis means that he or she will not collect on any fees unless you win a judgment or settlement in your case. If you lose, the lawyer will not charge you. However, you still could owe expenses like court costs and copying or courier services.

You should not put an attorney on retainer until you have the fee schedule provided to you in writing. You should also make sure all of your questions about it are answered in full and to your satisfaction before you pay the retainer fee and sign the contract.

Understand the Legal Process of Your Case

Before you sign the retainer contract, you also will want to make sure you understand the process of how your case will be worked and presented in court. You need to know how long it will take for your case to be fully resolved. You also need to comprehend how many times you will go to court and whether your case will be heard in an open trial before a judge or jury or in a private hearing coordinated by a mediator.

You also will want your attorney to explain what will be expected of you while the case is being worked on and decided. What kinds of documents or proof will you be required to provide to the lawyer or judge? How quickly do they need to be provided and what penalty could you face if you fail to comply with the order?

Once you have the facts of how your case will proceed, you can decide if you want to continue with it and if the attorney can handle it to your satisfaction. As with other facets of your case, you should ask for written proof of the case’s expected proceedings. You should take a copy of all of this information home with you to study carefully before you give your answer about whether or not you will put the tax attorney on retainer.

A tax lawyer can be a valuable ally when you are going up against the IRS, state treasurer’s office, or another tax entity. You could be at risk of losing assets like your car or house. You also could face having your income garnished.

A tax attorney can defend you in complicated tax matters and ensure your best interests are protected and heard during an audit, trial, or other tax court proceeding. These strategies ensure you find and retain the best lawyer to take your case.