Stressful tax season drawing to a close

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As Tax Day approaches next week, accountants are finally getting to the end of a particularly grueling busy season.

Some CPAs are finding particular sticking points for their clients. “Lots of clients are surprised by the payroll withholding change for 2018 versus 2017,” said Steven Zelin, a CPA in New York City who is known as the Singing CPA for his annual performances outside the main post office every Tax Day. “Even if they had the same income in 2018 as 2017, their withholding was less in 2018 and therefore their refunds were lower. Also the Schedule A SALT limitation of $10,000 made a lot of people upset.”

Joe Bublé, a partner and tax practice lead at Citrin Cooperman, a Top 100 Firm in New York, is also seeing some difficulties with the new tax law. “There are a lot of unanswered questions and complexities in the new law,” he said. “The IRS has issued a lot of regulations, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions. More and more, as you try to apply those regulations to specific client situations, more questions arise. We’re finding it difficult and clients are finding it difficult. It’s taking a lot longer to do returns because of the new law, and there’s a certain amount of uncertainty.”

Some individual tax clients are finding they need to adjust their tax withholding if they discover they owe an unexpectedly large tax bill. “That’s what we’re advising people to do,” said Bublé. “If it didn’t line up, they have to take another look at the withholding tables and adjust it. Some people are adjusting it to more match their liability, or even increasing their withholdings so they get a refund next year because the withholding tables have changed. And other people just leave it. They’d rather have the money, rather than giving it to the government. But they’re recognizing that if they get an increased paycheck, they need to put it away. That’s what the refunds were for, a kind of savings. They need to then save a part of their paycheck all along.”

Only about one-third of Americans approve of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, with attitudes often divided along party lines, according to a survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center. The survey found that attitudes to the tax overhaul have changed little since it passed in December 2017 along a party-line vote. While today 64 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe the present tax system is very or moderately fair, only half as many Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (32 percent) view the tax system as fair. While the proportion of Republicans who think the tax system is fair has increased 21 percentage points since 2017, the share of Democrats viewing the tax system as fair has declined 9 points over that period of time.

Over a year after the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was enacted into law, public approval remains relatively static, with 36 percent of survey respondents saying they approve of the tax law, while 49 percent say they disapprove. However, fewer Republicans strongly approve of the law, compared to January 2018, a month after it was passed.

Specific issues

Businesses are having trouble with some provisions, such as the Section 163(j) limitation on the deduction for business interest expenses.

“Those regulations weren’t issued until the end of the year, and in fact the IRS was taking comments on that through February 26, and they’re still in proposed form,” said Bublé. “I imagine they’re working on finalizing those. Since they came along probably five or six months after the 199A regs, and right before tax season, people have had a tougher time just digesting that and getting that in play for tax season, especially the software companies that prepare the tax returns. They’ve had to do an awful lot of programming and they were delayed in issuing the forms and releasing the final part of the programs, and then having the programs approved by the IRS, so that’s been a challenge.”

The delay has led to a backlog in some clients’ tax returns. That’s on top of the backlog at the IRS following the 35-day partial government shutdown. “Notices and correspondence with the IRS are taking much longer because I think they came back to a backlog of 5 million pieces of mail,” said Bublé. “It’s a challenge to get caught up, and I don’t think they’ll get caught up for years.”

Some clients will need to go on extension or file amended returns later because of lingering questions about proposed technical corrections to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. “You put people on extension, take a conservative route when you make the extension payments, and then hopefully if there’s guidance or legislation, which at this point is supposed to be retroactive, we’ll know how to file the returns come September or October, and they’ll get a refund or amounts applied to next year,” said Bublé.

One of the main technical corrections awaiting resolution is the so-called “retail glitch” for claiming 100 percent bonus depreciation for qualified leasehold improvements to retail and restaurant property (see House lawmakers introduce bill to fix ‘retail glitch’ in tax law). “That is the biggest one that we’re hoping gets through, although to the extent that all those businesses have been filing returns, it’s going to require those businesses to get their returns amended in addition to the individuals,” said Bublé. “But we’d like to see that one get passed, along with a few others.”

Other proposed fixes involve taxes on co-op housing shareholders and business losses. “The biggest problem that accountants have is the uncertainty,” said Bublé. “For example, the way the law was written, taxes passed through to co-op shareholders are not covered by the $10,000 cap on state and local income taxes and real estate taxes. Now, that’s clearly not what was intended, but that’s the way the law was written, and in the Joint Committee [on Taxation], they say it was their intent to cover it. They footnote that to say, ‘Oh, by the way, we may need a technical correction to achieve this,’ and of course it’s in the technical corrections bill. So now you’re in the middle. You know what they intended. You know you’re not supposed to get the tax deduction, but the way it’s written those clients will go on extension. Hopefully we’ll have clarity, and if it’s clarified, the ability to deduct it will go away, but that’s what everyone thought the rules were. There are a few other things like that, such as whether the salaries are included or excluded for the excess business loss calculation. The IRS issued forms that say that salaries are business income. There’s a technical correction that says maybe it’s not business income, but it’s the uncertainty that causes problems. Whatever the laws are, we’ll figure it out and file the returns properly, but when it’s up in the air, that’s when the problems come in.”

The remaining tax extenders that weren’t already addressed in either the PATH Act or the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act also leave some uncertainty. “The last year before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a lot of the extenders were made permanent, so there are very few in there,” said Bublé. “But for those people it applies to, that’s another reason you want to go on extension so you’re not constantly filing returns and amending them.”

But for many accountants, the end of tax season will provide a welcome respite. “Accountants are a hardy bunch, so we’re used to it, and everybody’s hanging in there,” said Bublé. “But we’ll be glad when it’s over, and then people can take some well-deserved rest.”

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