After almost a year, I’m back on the blog. Heading into the third pandemic-affected filing season, much has changed here at Tax Therapy.
First, I am working from home for the foreseeable future. That means the practice has transitioned from mostly office-based to mostly virtual. The only clients I will be seeing in person are those who qualify for a house call. I am still taking paper documents through the mail or, if you are in the Albuquerque area, by local courier. If you are a potential client please continue to browse the website and then, if you feel like I can meet your return preparation needs, click here to book a discovery call.
Second, I am (for the most part) now working solo. Cat has a new full-time job and will be helping as necessary to wrangle actual, and occasionally electronic, documents, but she will not be here to provide near instant answers to your phone calls and e-mails. Please allow 24-48 hours for a response and understand that during March it can take me up to 72 hours to respond to your inquiries.
Third, while I am currently accepting new clients, I am only accepting new 1040 clients (individual returns). I will not accept new clients who require entity returns (Forms 1065 or 1120-S) once filing season has started. Entity returns are much more complicated and the new client onboarding process is much too involved for one person working alone to attempt during tax season. Entity returns also have a March 15th deadline and I don’t feel that I can realistically meet that deadline for entity clients who are brand new in January. If you are interested in having me prepare your entity return, I encourage you to use the contact form to let me know and I will put you on a list of potential clients to contact later this year (typically starting in June).
Finally, my cutoff date for accepting new clients will likely be even earlier this year than it was last year. Last year I stopped accepting new clients on March 10th. This year I expect to stop accepting new clients as early as February 20th to ensure that I can manage my workload and meet the April 18th filing deadline for as many clients as possible. I have not yet decided whether or not I will be taking new clients during the summer and fall extension period. As Magic 8-ball says “signs point to no” but I reserve the right to change my mind.
Everyone (the IRS, the National Taxpayer Advocate, tax industry organizations, and tax professionals) are predicting another “hairy” filing season. Personally, I’m feeling a return to something resembling normal but I am also preparing for a bumpy ride. So put on your seatbelts and let’s get going!
Mid-March 2019. The phone rings and I answer it.
Me: Tax Therapy, this is Amber.
Caller: Hi, yes, I was wondering if you could do my taxes?
Me: Well we are taking new clients.
Caller: When can I get an appointment?
Me: Before I do that I need to let you know that we do not do taxes while you wait. Our process is to send you some preliminary paperwork to complete, have an intake appointment where we review the paperwork and your documents with you as well as doing an ID check, and then you leave your stuff and we put it into our processing queue and call you when it’s ready for review and signature. Right now the turnaround is about three weeks [2/3 of our volume came in during a 2 week period in March that year] but if you get onboarded I will make every effort to ensure that you are filed on time.
Caller: Oh. I really wanted to get them done right away.
Me: In that case I recommend using one of the large franchises, especially if you can find one that is locally owned and operated. They are set up for while you wait return processing. I am not.
Caller: I didn’t want to do that. I don’t like them and they are expensive.
Me: I’m sorry but I really don’t have anything else to offer you. Most of the smaller shops I know are either not taking new clients or fully booked right now.
Conversations like these happen all the time in small tax practices all across the country. When I’m helping tax practitioners with practice management I often tell them that managing client expectations is important. Equally important is communicating boundaries to potential clients.
This post is for taxpayers who may be shopping for a #taxpro for the first time or looking to make a change this filing season. The time to shop is now. Actually the time to shop was last fall, but most #taxpros aren’t thoroughly in the thick of things right now and can still accept new clients without requiring an extension.
If you are looking for a #taxpro it’s important to understand some of the realities of running a tax business.
First, it’s a business. In most cases your fee is not simply profit to us but is paying for things like software, insurance, and continuing education. Not to mention office rent, phone/internet, and staff. We cannot discount our fees because of your circumstances or expectations.
Overhead is a thing. Ever gone through a fast food drive through, purchased two full meals and thought “Wow. For a little more money I could have had better food and supported a local business.” When you purchase from a large franchise you are paying for convenience, consistency (which, like fast food, can still be hit or miss), and their overhead (physical space, employee training, and advertising). Small shops often have lower overhead but that doesn’t mean they have no overhead.
Tax season is, by its nature, time limited. In other words, there is a fixed amount of time to see clients. Many #taxpros factor this into their pricing. They figure they can do X number of returns in a season and need to make $ to cover their overhead and make a profit (in other words, actually pay themselves for the work they’re doing). Big franchises have some higher paid employees but also make use of armies of lower paid, lower experienced employees to maximize their profits (higher return volume, done for lower cost). In some big “fancy” firms your return may be reviewed and signed by a highly paid, highly experienced professional, but they may only be giving it a cursory review. Again, this helps firms increase their profits (which should be the goal of any business). In smaller shops, it’s often a highly experienced #taxpro actually working on your return with the help of some lower paid support staff. And there are only so many hours a day that we can “brain.”
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “good, fast, or cheap; pick any two” that applies. If you want personalized service and someone to take the time to listen to your calls and explain things to you, that is often not going to be your cheapest option. You may be able to find that level of service for a reasonable price (something in line with what a franchise would charge or maybe even a bit less due to lower overhead) but those firms are not going to be willing to adapt their business model to your expectations. In other words, they cannot change from a drop off firm to a while you wait firm because that is what you want. They are a drop off firm because that is how they both do their best work and because its factored into their price structure.
If you want while you wait service, expect to pay for it. Same thing if you want a highly personalized experience or need a lot of advice or want your #taxpro to be available year round.
If you’re looking for a lower price you may need to find a #taxpro who doesn’t maintain a physical office (rent is a huge part of overhead). No office may not guarantee a lower price, but if you need a #taxpro with a physical office space do not expect bargain basement prices. You may need to accept a longer turnaround time because they don’t have staff to help them. And having staff doesn’t guarantee fast turnaround (especially if the firm is already backlogged). Doing a thorough and accurate job on a tax return takes time, no matter how simple you may think your situation is. You may also need to accept that your #taxpro is only available during tax season and that you may not be able to find them if a situation arises May-December. Or that if you do find them, they may not have the time or experience needed to help you.
Finally, this is why #taxpros get really prickly mid season (OK, sometimes earlier) about price shoppers. Especially #taxpros in solo firms. At the height of tax season time spent on the phone with price shoppers is time that could be spent doing billable work.
Early April 2019 – Monday Morning
Cat was not working Saturday so I turned off the phone so I could focus on finishing returns. I worked a full 8-10 hour day. I either took Sunday off or spent it doing office administration or housework instead of working on tax returns. I get to the office and check the voicemail which includes a few inquiries from potential clients.
Me: Hi, this is Amber from Tax Therapy, I’m returning your call from Friday night.
Caller: Oh. I already found someone. You weren’t fast enough.
Me: OK. Great. Good luck and thanks for calling.
I think the caller expected me to feel bad. I did not. Again, my tax practice (and those of many other solo practitioners) are not set up to do high intake volume late in the season. I am well aware of my physical and mental limitations. There is a fixed amount of “deep work” I can do in a given day/week/filing season. By the time this caller called I was 90% focused on moving returns out of the office and doing “extension triage,” 5% focused on ongoing resolution matters for clients, and 5% focused on process improvements for next filing season. In other words, by the time this caller decided to look for a #taxpro, the current filing season was already all over but some shouting in my office. I still might have been accepting new clients, but not one whose turnaround expectations were so high. I mean, if the caller couldn’t wait until the next business day for me to return the call, what’s the likelihood of them accepting an extension?
The Final Word in Confusion
The big tax franchises and the DIY software providers spend a lot of resources convincing people that “every person is a tax person” and that return preparation is a transaction. A widget for sale. And the more widgets they sell the more profit they earn. When you’re looking for a smaller shop, before you start calling about price take some time to decide which type of shop you are really looking for. Do you want a high-volume transaction type shop or a smaller, more relationship oriented shop? Are you just looking for fast turnaround on a basic return or do you want more personal service? After you’ve answered those questions, then you can look at what’s available in your area and start price shopping. And again, be aware that if you’re calling during peak season many relationship shops may not be able to meet your expected turnaround time, may charge a higher price if they can meet it, and may not be taking new clients at all.
The CARES Act and the more recent legislation (it doesn’t have a catchy name so I’ll call it CARES2) have created an above-the-line adjustment for certain charitable contributions. Pro-tip: If it’s “above the (AGI) line” it’s an adjustment to income; if it’s below the (AGI) line it is a deduction. If you are a #taxpro reading this it’s important to use the correct language. If you’re a taxpayer reading this the tax outcomes are largely the same but I like to use the right language.
For Tax Year 2020 taxpayers who take the standard deduction can make an above-the-line adjustment for cash contributions of up to $300 on their 1040s. There’s a marriage penalty here. The $300 for 2020 is on a per return, not a per taxpayer basis. So single filers can make a $300 adjustment and married taxpayers filing a joint return can make a $300 adjustment. The IRS has recently issued guidance (that contradicts the actual law) that says married taxpayers filing separately can only take a $150 adjustment. It’s incorrect but the tax savings are not worth the expense if the IRS decides to assess a penalty (more on that later).
In the more recently passed legislation the marriage penalty was removed. Each taxpayer may contribute up to $300 in cash to qualified charitable organizations. So for Tax Year 2021 it is possible to take an up to $600 above the line adjustment on a jointly filed return. Singles and Heads of Household still can take up to $300. Again, this is for taxpayers who do not itemize their deductions. Taxpayers who use Schedule A to itemize their deductions continue to deduct all of their qualified contributions on that schedule.
Now for the fine print. The IRS will be watching. The Service has stated that there will be a 50% penalty if you claim this adjustment without proper substantiation. What does that mean? It means receipts. Here’s a link to some information on proper recordkeeping for charitable contributions. In general, clients should always be maintaining the records necessary to substantiate their charitable contributions. But for this adjustment in particular it is even more important for the #taxpro to keep the receipts that substantiate this adjustment in the client’s tax file for the applicable years in case the IRS comes looking for them. Don’t be the client who tells your #taxpro “just take the max.” And if you are a #taxpro who “just takes the max” without proper substantiation then you aren’t really a #taxpro in my opinion. True tax professionals do not open their clients up to these types of penalties. They are too easily avoided. If you don’t have the proper documentation it’s going to cost you more in penalties than you saved in taxes by taking an unsubstantiated adjustment. Just don’t do it.
Remember, this adjustment has the following conditions:
See that last bit? It’s important to understand that not every tax exempt organization is a recognized 501(c)(3) organization.
I saw this sign as I was driving home a while ago and thought “Yikes!” Your neighborhood association dues, homeowners association dues, and many other payments or contributions to tax exempt organizations are not tax deductible. Raffle tickets and purchases of auction items are also not deductible, no matter how worthy the cause.* Neither are contributions made to individuals (via gofundme or other types of crowdfunding) or contributions made to charitable organizations outside the U.S. (again, to be deductible the organization must be a 501(c)(3)).
If you have questions about whether or not your contribution is deductible it’s always better to ask your #taxpro or to look to reliable sources for more information. Reliable sources include the tax team at Forbes.com, the IRS website, and (sometimes) the knowledge base provided by your DIY software vendor. Reliable sources do not include TikTok, Twitter, or YouTube unless the person providing the advice is recognized as an expert in the field (again, the IRS, Forbes, etc.). And occasionally even trustworthy sources provide incorrect information. Right now information is changing so quickly what you are reading could already be obsolete. Be careful out there. Read the fine print and remember, if it sounds too good to be true it usually is.
*If you paid substantially more than fair market value for an auction item you may be able to deduct the amount in excess of fair market value but be prepared to answer some questions and provide some proof to your tax professional.
We’re not quite to the new year yet, but I’m sprinting toward the goal line!
I’m also expecting that many taxpayers will be required to complete a new Form W4 soon. Form W4 is what your employer uses to determine how much federal and state income tax to withhold from your paycheck each pay period. It contains basic information such as your name, address and taxpayer ID number (usually your SSN). The old form used to ask you to calculate how many “allowances” or “exemptions” from withholding you wanted to claim. And there was a worksheet. The higher the number of allowances the lower the withholding. So, to have the maximum amount withheld you simply claimed “Single 0.” The new form doesn’t work that way. On the surface it looks more complex than the old form but my colleague, Sherrell Martin, has done this amazing video that shows that the new form is actually pretty easy to complete and she walks you through how to complete it!
If you are going to use the video to complete your new W4 it will be helpful to first gather the following information:
*This information can be easily found on the comparison worksheet included with your tax return. My clients can find their “comp sheet” toward the top of the left hand pocket of their tax folder (or near the top of their PDF return copy). Even if you don’t use a paid tax preparer, most DIY software provides a comp sheet.
So, gather your information and let Sherrell walk you through the process of completing your new W4. Remember this new W4 and the associated withholding tables are designed to have you withholding the most accurate amount of tax, not the amount that will get you a big refund. You could even end up with a balance due when you file your tax return.
At Tax Therapy we include a mid-year withholding check up with our full-service return preparation. We will do a basic estimate of your annual income, credits, deductions, and withholding to determine if you need to make any adjustments for the rest of the year. And, while helping clients complete a new W4 is not included with tax return preparation, we can help you do that for an additional fee. If you are interested please log into your TaxDome account using the link in the Client Resources tab and send us a message.
Remember when they were doing direct deposit or mailing a paper check? Well someone convinced someone that prepaid debit cards were a better idea. I won’t wax philosophical on the fact that you can’t usually pay rent with a debit card. Instead, I will link to this article from The Tax Girl letting you know that debit card is legit…so don’t throw it away!
Remember when I talked about college students who are dependents (or basically any child over 16) not being eligible for the dependent EIP or their own EIP? Well, that applies to adult dependents too. So if you’re claiming your parent as a dependent and they are wondering where their stimulus money is—it isn’t coming. Because they are a dependent over the age of 16. Yeah—this is a drag.
What’s not a drag is that I have been moving through the returns and Cat may be coming back part time starting next week. Can I get a hallelujah?!
And we are open by appointment for document drop off, return review and signature, and for new client intake appointments.
That’s about it for today!
It’s Thursday and, after a fairly productive start to the week and a really hectic Wednesday, I am working from home. I have a 2-hour class today and I also needed to catch up on reading and administrative tasks.
The tax returns, however, keep on trucking. I’ll be back in the office tomorrow (Friday) working on returns. I’m still at the pile that came in in mid-March, which (if you have been keeping up with this blog) is most of them. But I’m finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel! I still expect to get most of the returns that normally would not have been on extension filed by the end of this month.
I am still planning on opening the office by appointment only beginning Tuesday afternoon, May 19th. I have already booked a few appointments so if you are wanting an appointment in May (and not in June) it’s best to call or e-mail and book now.
You can also call or e-mail if you are a client with a question about your Economic Impact Payment. I’ve been answering those as I can and I appreciate everyone’s understanding concerning the fact that while I have a lot of information on the process, I have absolutely no control over the IRS, the Treasury Department, or their tools (electronic or human).
I am still urging everyone to stay home to the greatest extent possible and to use e-mail, the phone, Zoom, the secure portal, or USPS/courier to communicate with me.
Enjoy your weekend everyone!
In case you missed the memo, NM Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (a.k.a. Notorious MLG), has extended the stay-at-home order through May 15th. Cat and I are going to continue to honor that by Cat staying at home. That means no phone support for me. That means leave a message! I am usually at the office (although I will admit that “gardener’s hours” are starting to kick in) and I stop work to pick up phone messages a few times a day.
The backlog is slowly clearing. That means, for those of you whose returns still haven’t made it into the office, we will be ready to start accepting new paperwork soon. So here’s the plan—
Whether or not the stay-at-home is extended beyond May 15th, I will re-open the office for document drop offs by appointment only on Tuesday, May 19th. My 24th wedding anniversary is Monday the 18th so I’ll probably take that day off. If you wish to make an appointment to drop off your tax return documents or missing paperwork (K1s, corrected broker 1099s, etc.), please just call or e-mail and I or Cat will get back to you and will set you up!
I will probably re-open the office to new clients at the beginning of June. We will still be, to the greatest extent possible or required, limiting in-person visits to the office. Re-opening to new clients simply means that I will once again be accepting inquiries from new clients. So, if you know anyone who hasn’t filed but wants to, June is when I’ll be accepting referrals again. That should be plenty of time to meet the July 15th filing deadline.
Thanks to all of you for hanging in there through this chaotic tax season with me!
OK! Still feeling like I’ve turned a corner. Getting returns processed. Cat is finding her “work at home” groove too. We are moving slowly through the stacks that have been here since mid-March when all hell broke loose. I am still having to set aside some of the more complex ones for when I am able to fully focus. When it comes to tax returns it’s a lot harder to fix them than it is to just get them right the first time. So I want to make sure I’m in top form when I’m working on the ones with a lot of moving parts (you know who you are).
If you still haven’t gotten your stuff into the office, that’s OK! Once I feel like most of the backlog has been cleared I will get a bit more pro-active about getting what remains out into the office. I’m hoping that this will roughly coincide with at least a lightening of some of the stay-at-home restrictions. We will see—that’s going to depend both on how quickly I work and how well we do at flattening the curve here in NM.
Again, we’ve got until July 15th and I’m planning on having most of them out well before then unless additional chaos ensues.
Thanks for hanging in there with us!
To those of you who sent kind e-mails offering to go on extension, to wait, or simply with kind words for me and Cat, thank you.
To those of you who are sending e-mails making suggestions for how I can improve my business during this time—less than helpful. Oddly enough I’m getting these from both colleagues who know nothing about my business or my clients and from clients whose only contact with my business is once a year when I file their tax returns (and none of them are professional business coaches—I actually have one of those and listen to her). In any case, I’ve been running this business for ten years now and you might, especially if you are a W2 worker or a freelancer with one or more relatively continuous gigs, take a moment to consider that running a business with over 100 clients at any given time (down from over 200 across three offices), a physical office (three physical offices once upon a time), staff on the payroll (albeit only one right now, but there used to be six spread across the three locations), and a huge level of professional liability because of the type of work being done 1) is fundamentally different than your situation and 2) might have already involved considering your idea and deciding against it. I also have to wonder if you e-mail helpful suggestions to the other professionals with whom you work (your broker, your doctor, your attorney, your realtor) or if you just accept that the way they are doing business is the way that it is done and/or the way it works best for them.
To those of you who have requested that we return your documents, thanks for letting me know. I understand. Cat will be picking up documents from the office twice a week and getting them in the mail.
Here’s what I’m working on this week:
If you haven’t turned in your tax documents to the office yet, you can mail them, you can upload them, or you can wait until the governor lifts the stay at home order to drop them off. We have until 7/15 to finish the returns at this point so I see no reason to open the office to clients at this time. Everyone should be doing their best to stay at home. I will, of course, re-evaluate if the order continues beyond May 15th. If you are one of my clients who routinely has a “late K1” that is still no problem! I know who you are, I’m watching the deadlines, and I will be in touch!
Same rules for finished returns as for incoming returns. For the most part Cat will be sending them to you “as if” you were one of our out of state clients. When you get your copy you can call (leave a message) or e-mail to schedule a full review appointment by phone or Zoom. In this case I do not recommend waiting until the stay at home order is lifted for a review & signature appointment. If too many of you do that it is going to create yet another bottleneck similar to the one that occurred when all those return packets came in during March.
Finally, a reminder. I do not use text to communicate with clients. I know that some of you would like it if I did, but it simply is not a workable option right now. If that’s a deal breaker for you, I understand but I have to run my business in the way that best meets the needs of all of my clients and my professional needs with respect to office efficiency and security. Not to mention in a way that respects the boundary between my professional and personal lives.
As always, I appreciate your patience and understanding during this difficult time. It has definitely pushed me to the breaking point and is causing me to re-evaluate how the practice will be run moving forward into next tax season.
When, where, how, I don’t know yet, but remember yesterday’s post where I mentioned the “donut hole” for college-age dependents? Two Michigan senators have introduced legislation to address that and it will probably be part of a larger Phase 4 relief package according to Kay Bell at Don’t Mess with Taxes.