Art of Accounting: Pro Bono Work

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IMGCAP(1)]I just finished reading John Grisham’s novel Gray Mountain, about a young attorney working in a legal aid clinic. At one point she is asked to prepare a will for a woman with property worth about $200,000. This reminded me of some pro bono work I have been asked to do for people who could clearly afford it, and that caused resentment by me.

I have done my share of real pro bono work and was glad to do it. It left me satisfied that I was able to help someone. But for those who could afford it, I felt like a sap.

One time I was asked to assist a 92-year-old man whose wife was going into a nursing home and he needed help to arrange his affairs so that all his money would not be consumed paying for that. When I went to his house with a pro bono attorney, we found over 50 savings books with at least $10,000 in each account (the total was over $800,000). Further it turned out that he wanted us to help him “hide” the money so his wife would become eligible for Medicaid. I told the lawyer we should leave and I chalked up the four hours I spent as “experience.”

Another time we were asked to help prepare tax returns and get the finances in order for a woman whose husband was killed on September 11, 2001, and certainly looked forward to assisting her. We saw this through to completion on a pro bono basis since we were representing the New York State Society of CPAs. However, she collected almost $5 million in life insurance and was going to receive a substantial pension. She clearly could afford to pay for professional services and should not have been placed in the pool of people we were helping on a pro bono basis.

A third time was a person that had no money, but that was because the husband and wife both smoked two packs of cigarettes a day (adding up to $7,500 a year), paid $275 a month (or $3,300 per year) for cable television, had the latest $200 sneakers, and visited Starbucks each morning (roughly $3,000 per year). In effect they spent $15,000 a year on nonessential items. I did help them because they were broke, but after meeting with them I had to have everything I was wearing sent to the dry cleaner to remove the smoke smell embedded in my clothes.

There were many legitimate organizations and some desperate people I helped. I felt good about that, but along the way there were some real clunkers.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner emeritus at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz (published by CPATrendlines) and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition” (published by the AICPA). Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 964-9329 or

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