Last-minute fix: Preparers’ biggest challenges as tax season heats up

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With the season underway, preparers are still fine-tuning software, workflow and clients’ ability to realize that reform generally doesn’t affect the returns worked on now.

“This year is like no other in recent memory,” said Jeffrey Gentner, an Enrolled Agent in Amherst, N.Y. “I think it’ll be very difficult to keep political views out of the conversation, which is something that I have gotten very used to doing since the last election.”

Enough time to prepare 2017 returns and answer questions on reform? “I know some tax professionals are already saying they won’t have enough time to do both,” said EA Laurie Ziegler at Sass Accounting, in Saukville, Wis. “I’m going to try. I feel asking the clients to wait until after April just isn’t practical. A third of the year will be gone by then.”

“Our biggest challenge heading into filing season is continuing to answer client questions regarding reform,” said Brian Thompson, a CPA at Bailey & Thompson Tax & Accounting in Little Rock, Ark.

“While there aren’t many tax changes affecting the 2017 returns, I am concerned about the additional time clients will need us to spend with them preparing for 2018,” he said. “Filing season is short enough and seems to be getting compressed into a smaller timeframe each year. It’ll be a balancing act to manage time to get everything done.”

Mixes of clients and workflow

Some challenges seem, this year, almost refreshingly normal. “Recruiting trustworthy and talented employees to help manage the work load is my biggest challenge this season,” said John Dundon, an EA and president of Taxpayer Advocacy Services in Englewood, Colo. “Prospective employees have laughed in my face when being offered $25 an hour, which all models dictate is well above market rate for basic preparation.”

EA Joel Grandon in Marion, Iowa, sees the future as his biggest challenge. “There seems to be an abundance of new clients that want our services,” he said, “but not all of them are the type of clients I want to build my future with.” Speaking of the future, “The biggest challenge heading into filing season remains refocusing on consulting services and escaping the individual tax prep rat race,” said Geoff Plourde, a CPA and EA in Woodland Hills, Calif.

“On the administrative level, it’s front office staffing and a change in tax software,” said EA Twila Midwood at Advanced Tax Centre in Rockledge, Fla. “On the client level, it’s making sure that clients have all of their supporting documents at the time of their appointment. Last year we had an unusually excessive amount of clients with incomplete records. We changed our organizers this year to hopefully mitigate these issues.”

A recent TaxSlayer survey found that slightly more than half of taxpayers find the filing process is stressful, with the primary cause of worry the gathering of documents.

“My biggest challenge during this tax season will be workflow-related,” said Morris Armstrong, an EA and registered investment advisor at Armstrong Financial Strategies, Cheshire, Conn. “I’m trying hard to reduce paper and rely more on portals and scanned documents. Much of my clientele are more comfortable using paper and, since the relationships are over a decade old, their preferences are honored. For new clients there may be a paper/paperless pricing scheme. The other challenge is having clients realize that the time to talk about 2018 changes is not while I’m working on the 2017 return.”

‘Stay tuned’

The survey also found that almost three out of five Americans are not confident about their understanding of the U.S. Tax Code – and that’s before reform. “Working through the TCJA, I have to figure out how it will impact my clients next year so that I can project estimated tax vouchers,” said Terri Ryman, an EA at Southwest Tax & Accounting, in Elkhart, Kan.

Gentner said he’s spent “a good deal of time” completing CPE on the new tax laws recently. “I pre-appoint clients a year ahead and slot time based on needs. I just hope I can keep to my schedule and still answer all the 2018 tax law questions that my clients will be bringing,” he said. “For the majority of my clients, the most important question will be, ‘Will I be better or worse off when I file my 2018 tax return?’ I’ve been assured by my software developer that a ‘tax projection worksheet’ will include all the 2018 changes so I can quickly give my clients the answer.”

“I want to be sure that my clients are in the best possible position to manage their 2018 scenario,” said New York EA Phyllis Jo Kubey. “I will be checking withholding once the new withholding tables are implemented by their employers. I’ll also be helping clients in industries where they’ve had a lot of employee business expenses approach their employers to see whether they can get an accountable reimbursement plan put into place.

“I’m doing my best to keep up with the latest tax-related news and to advise my clients,” Kubey said. “I find myself using the phrase ‘Stay tuned’ often.”

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Tax season Tax planning Tax reform Trump tax plan