PREPARING your tax return can be a challenge, owing to the complexity of the tax code. It makes sense to hire a pro.

Choose carefully, perhaps beginning by seeking referrals. Then ask for an interview. The accountant should be willing to discuss and assess your situation for free before you strike any agreement.

Ask questions:

* How big is your firm? (How important will your business be to the company?)

* What are your fees and billing policies? (Ask for an estimate.)

* Who will be preparing my taxes - you or someone else? Whom do I approach with questions?

* What are your continuing-professional-education requirements, and how many hours do you take each year? (Exceeding the requirements is a good sign.)

* What research material do you use and subscribe to? (Answers such as "CCH," "Research Institute" and "BNA" are encouraging. If the answer is merely the current Federal Tax Handbook, that's a red flag. Some of us have complicated tax issues that require deep research.)

* If my return is audited, will you represent me before the IRS? (Ideally, he or she should go instead of you, not with you.)