Is it better or worse to prepare returns in front of clients? Tax pros differ over whether it’s better to have the client present so they can answer questions, or to prepare the return distraction and check their work before sharing it with the client.

“I prepare returns in front of clients most of the time and have for about 50 years,” said Marilyn Meredith, of Michigan-based Meredith Tax Service. “This is the most efficient and most thorough way of preparing returns.”

“We prepare as many tax returns with the client present as possible,” said Enrolled Agent Debra James at Genesis Accounting & Management Services, in Lorain, Ohio. “It enables us to do a higher volume of work, ask questions while we work and get to know our clients better not just on a business level but a personal level – which I believe helps retain clients.”

“My goal is to complete the return with the client during our scheduled appointment,” added Marilyn Heller Ayers, a CPA in Brick, N.J. “During our conversation, I usually learn important facts that affect the return or will affect it in the following year.”

“My preference is to prepare returns as part of a face-to-face interview,” said Jeff Gentner, an EA in Amherst, N.Y. “I feel most confident when I sit with the taxpayers and do a thorough interview while entering data. I also know that my clients want to leave with results, as well as knowing that it is complete.”

“Having my clients sitting at my desk from start to finish is my preferred method of preparation,” said Kathy Hallford, an EA at Kathy’s Tax Service in Gilbertown, Ala. “Time is saved when questions can be asked, answered and documented all at the same setting.”


LET'S REVIEW

Time to double-check work figures is top of mind for preparers who don’t prepare returns in front of clients. “I’ll give an estimate of refund or amount due in most circumstances, but as a rule I take the return and process it in a few days and get it back to the client,” said Joel Grandon, an EA in Marion, Iowa. “It gives me a chance to review the final product and I find I make fewer errors when I’m not trying to carry on a conversation and enter data at the same time.”

Said Nicole Green, an EA at NGG Tax Group in Easton, Mass., “I prepare less than 1 percent of my returns face to face. As a solo practitioner, I want to be able to prepare the return, put it down and then review at a later time for possible errors.”

CPA Brian Stoner, in Burbank, Calif., will sometimes prep in front of clients “if the client is rushed and needs to file that day or has a pressing issue, but I prefer to not handle the returns that way,” he said. “If I do prepare the returns that way, I’ll review the returns then and discuss with the client before we sign the e-file forms.”

A MATTER OF STYLE

A recent practitioners’ survey by the National Society of Accountants revealed that slightly fewer than half of respondents (45.7 percent) collect client data in person to prepare a return. The survey didn’t specify actually preparing the return in front of the client.

“Not my style,” said Morris Armstrong, an EA and registered investment advisor with Armstrong Financial Strategies in Cheshire, Conn. “I interview a client, collect documentation and an organizer, review it and make notes and then do the return in private.”

Said Chris Hardy, an EA in Suwanee, Ga., “Most times clients don’t have all the necessary items ready to complete a return even if they complete the organizer.”

“I used to do it all the time. I was doing a quick and dirty calculation before they left anyway, to give them an idea of what they would owe or get back,” recalled EA Terri Ryman, of Southwest Tax & Accounting in Elkhart, Kan., whose husband asked why she didn’t just finish the return in front of the client and probably get paid faster. “Very seldom would it be incorrect when I reviewed it later that day before transmitting,” Ryman said.


VALUE SERVICE

EA William Keats of Keats Tax & Financial Service in North Merrick, N.Y., prepares about three-quarters of personal returns in front of clients. “Estate returns and corporation returns, as well as payroll and sales tax returns, are usually dropped off or mailed in to me,” he said.

With complex returns such as those corporations or partnerships, EA Laura Strombom at All About Numbers in Stockton, Calif., gets the information for the entity or complex portion of the return on a 1040 either through her bookkeeper or from the client, “and then we review their books and ask questions before going with the books on a return,” she said. “I then prepare the return outside of the client appointment … and then present the return to them in the appointment.”

Those trained in some chains were used to the face-to-face. “Ninety-five percent of the returns I prepare are done in front of my clients,” said Frederick Reynolds, an EA in Utica, N.Y. “I work for H&R Block, and that’s just the nature of the beast.”

A tax preparer advising a client
A tax preparer advising a client. Bloomberg News

“The first year that I did taxes was at H&R Block, in 2000,” Armstrong recalled. “We did do most returns with the client sitting there – and they’d interrupt all the time and ask, ‘What are you doing?’ One person wanted to watch everything and have everything explained to him so that he could do the returns for his friends … .”

“A key motivation is that by reviewing a return as a whole, without the pressure of the client, there’s a better chance of spotting something else in the big picture that would be beneficial, said EA Richard Ogg at The Master’s Tax & Financial Services in Santa Rosa, Calif. “Another downside is if you are too quick, some clients may wonder why they’re paying the fee that we charge.”

“Preparing returns in front of clients could have a downward pressure effect on fees for preparers,” added Stephen Mead, an EA in Bradenton, Fla. “Time trumps knowledge in [clients’] value equation.”

“I do 80 percent of my clients’ returns in my office while they wait,” said Patrick O’Hara, an EA in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “These are clients that we can prepare, print and review returns within an hour or less. Many of my peers disapprove of this model,” he added, “but I believe it’s a more efficient use of my time and I’m able to get paid on the spot. It’s also a good opportunity to reinforce relationships and ask for referrals or a review of our service.”

“I do prepare returns in front of clients, generally speaking. But I do give them an option to … send it via mail, fax it, scan and e-mail it or we can even do a Skype meeting,” said Theodore Prioleau, an EA at Hunt Valley, Md.-based Teddy The Tax Man and Hunt Valley Retirements. “I find that the more flexible I am, the more options they have, the more they love it.”

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Jeff Stimpson

Jeff Stimpson

Jeff Stimpson is a veteran freelance journalist who previously served as editor of The Practical Accountant.