It's the bane of just about every profession: You spend years and years in school, and then spend the rest of your professional life playing keep-up as the profession changes.
That means hitting the books for the latest read on a law or standard that affects the way that a transaction should be approached. Back in the day, "books" meant just that: loose-leaf services with binders that had to be updated on a regular basis to reflect new laws and tax cases, new analyses, and corrected errors in pages already filed. Even today, paper manuals are still common, especially analyses of recently passed legislation or court findings.
THE WORLD OF E-RESEARCH
But much tax research is now performed electronically. That puts the burden of updating the information, and of ensuring that crucial updates and changes are reflected, on the vendor providing the service, not on the clerk or librarian responsible for accurately filing paper pages.
That's not to say that paper is passÃ©. Numerous publications on all areas of taxation and accounting regulations, techniques and other areas of interest are available in book format. But where electronic versions of these and other resources are available, they offer definite benefits.
Electronic research services have been available since the 1990s, first on CD-ROM, then directly online, and finally over the Internet. The availability of code, laws and analysis in searchable electronic format has been of great benefit, even to the smaller practice. Because it's possible to search across a wide variety of different sources, it's likely, with the proper use of search terms and access to multiple reference databases, that your search may find information in places where you might not have thought to look. And typing in a search term, or set of terms separated by Boolean operators, is much faster, and often more accurate, than thumbing through indices and tables of contents.
But as much as it makes finding relevant data easier, keep in mind that electronic tax research is not a panacea. As with the old loose-leaf services, you frequently need to have subscriptions to more than a single reference service. Another stumbling block is defining your search. Searching using Boolean operators has become common since Yahoo, Google and other search engines have entered our day-to-day life. But searching electronic sources is still a specialized skill. Most of the vendors who offer electronic research subscriptions also provide training, often online, in how to get the most out of their services.
A SMALL UNIVERSE OF VENDORS
There aren't very many companies that offer tax and accounting research services. The costs of keeping services up to date and publishing them (even electronically), as well as analyzing new codes, court cases, findings and other occurrences, policies, procedures and best practices, requires a huge ongoing investment, and keeps the market limited.
But keep in mind that tax and accounting research providers aren't the only place to get answers. Strange as it may seem, one good place to start your research might be the taxing authority itself. The IRS and many state and local tax divisions provide numerous booklets on how to handle situations that involve areas such as estate and death taxes, retirement distributions, and many more. There are even taxpayer and practitioner help lines for many of these agencies.
Of course, these agencies aren't usually free with the more arcane interpretations of code, law and findings that are in your client's best financial interest. And if they make a mistake, it's the client (and sometimes you) who pays the piper. And no tax authority is going to look up and research code sections that might go beyond the obvious.
Still, asking the taxing agency for help can often point you in a direction that you might not have thought of. And publication services are also available from the organizations that determine how a client's transactions should be handled from an accounting standpoint, such as the Financial Accounting Standards Board and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Those statements almost always have tax consequences.
Finally, there are other practitioners. Some you can ask at local CPA society meetings, if you have the time to wait until there's a meeting. The Internet has also become a resource you can use. Typing a question into a search engine may pull up the relevant code section - or lead you to a Web site or blog of a firm or practitioner who specializes in the area of your concern.
But the bottom line is that all these free resources are just places to start or expand a search. You're the one that your client has turned to for advice, and you're the one who will get nailed if that advice turns out to be wrong. So even if you've gotten some guidance from a source that you consider reliable, it's in your best interest to also use a source or sources that are considered not only reliable, but authoritative as well.
Below is an overview of some of the better-known companies, and a sampling of the research products they offer. No prices are given, as the cost depends on which products you subscribe to, and whether you subscribe to a single product or service, or bundle several together.
BNA, which is in the process of being acquired by Bloomberg, offers a variety of tax- and accounting-related products. For the most part, these are offered as specialized "portfolios" that deal with very specific issues. For example, one of the portfolios in the Federal Tax Research and Guidance Series is Net Operating Losses and Other Tax Attributes - Sections 381,382, 383, 384 and 269. Obviously, unless you have clients for which this an issue, the $400 price tag of the portfolio is not going to be very enticing.
At the same time, that's not to say that BNA doesn't offer services and products that are of more general interest and useful to firms with a less specialized practice. The Daily Tax Report is a great tool for keeping yourself and staff in the loop on current and upcoming legislation and rulings.
BNA is also very strong in research and guidance in state taxation, especially sales tax. The Accounting Policy & Practice Series is useful in analysis and decision-making on unresolved tax issues.
BNA's strong point has always been its emphasis on analysis. The vendor's services are not primarily geared to searching by code or case. But even if you have another service that is code-oriented, you may want to extend it with one or more of BNA's Portfolio sets.
CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business, provides accounting and tax research services under two major platforms - Accounting Research Manager and IntelliConnect.
Accounting Research Manager is a standards-based research service, targeted at providing up-to-date data on financial reporting issues and standards. It covers standards and pronouncements from organizations including FASB, the American Institute of CPAs, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Emerging Issues Task Force, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, COSO, the International Accounting Standards Board, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, and the Office of Management and Budget. You can subscribe to individual libraries, such as Audit (public or private), Accounting only, Internal Controls, AICPA Risk Assessment Guidance, and others. Subscriptions can include multiple areas of interest, or just specific areas. The ARM is aimed at compliance, providing access to areas of concern with both the way that your clients, and your firm, operate and conduct transactions.
The second major research platform, IntelliConnect, is more code- and case-oriented. There are multiple libraries. These include Corporate OmniTax Library, which contains the Standard Federal Tax Reporter, the Federal Excise Tax Reporter, Tax Research Consultant, the U.S. Master Tax Guide, the U.S. Master Depreciation Guide, and the U.S. Master GAAP Guide. CCH@Hand allows searches over multiple publications, and news is covered by TaxTracker News, a daily news service, Taxes -The Tax Magazine, Current Legislative Developments, and the CCH Federal Tax Weekly.
The State Business Income Tax Research and Compliance Manager targets corporate taxes from a state point of view, and has news and development features similar to the OmniTax Library. And other libraries cover business strategies and other topics relevant to an accounting practice.
LexisNexis is primarily known for its law research products, but while the thrust of most of the LexisNexis services and products is aimed at attorneys, accounting practices, especially those that have clients with complex tax issues, will find the LexisNexis Tax Center a useful resource.
To a large degree, LexisNexis is a resource and vendor consolidation system, providing research databases from multiple vendors. This allows a single search to access database products from several vendors, not just a single source. One of the major offerings on LexisNexis is Shepard's for Tax Professionals, which provides Shepard's Citations Service on 20 IRS sources. These include revenue rulings, revenue procedures, notices, announcements, private letter rulings, technical advice memoranda, Treasury decisions, actions on decisions, chief counsel notices, chief counsel advice memorandums, and many more.
Shepard's is primarily a citations service, which means that it will lead you to the code that's applicable to your search terms, but by itself does not usually provide extensive analysis on the subject matter. At the same time, many of the sources that a search points to will have their own analyses of the subject matter. Searching Shepard's can also point you to other sources of analysis, or include other agencies or jurisdictions that have relevance to your search.
Shepard's is not the only tax resource that the LexisNexis Tax Center offers. There are several LexisNexis services, including Practice Insights, which are written by tax professionals at leading accounting firms and provide two-page treatment of state codes or regulations (though not all states are covered), and the LexisNexis database of codes and regulations.
The LexisNexis Tax Advisor - Federal Code is a research service that allows a practice to search for code sections, link to relevant materials in other places, and then return to the original search.
In addition, the Tax Center includes material from BNA, Tax Analysts, CCH and Mathew Bender. Not all of the material that these other vendors produce is available through the Tax Center, though some of the printed material that vendors offer can be purchased through the LexisNexis store.
Thomson Reuters, like CCH, has a wide variety of accountant-oriented products and services, including software for tax preparation on both the firm level and the corporate level. It also offers numerous research products from its RIA, WG&L and PPC divisions.
Of particular interest to tax and accounting research is RIA's U.S. Tax Reporter Library, which is a code-based service that covers code, regulations and Treasury decisions, IRS revenue rulings, IRS Practice, a weekly newsletter, the Federal Tax Handbook, federal court decisions, IRS publications, tax legislation, indexes, WG&L Journal Previews, productivity tools, and pending and enacted legislation.
Another popular RIA product is the Federal Tax Coordinator 2D. This is available as a print service with 35 volumes that are updated weekly, or as an online subscription, updated more frequently (analysis is updated twice weekly, primary source materials are updated daily). The Federal Tax Coordinator is focused on federal taxes - income, estate, gift, excise, FUTA and FICA. Other Thomson Reuters' products and services provide coverage of state taxes and sales taxes.
Thomson Reuters' premier online service is Checkpoint. Checkpoint features an easy-to-use interface that permits searching across many of Thomson Reuters' individual product offerings, including practice aids from PPC. The latest edition of Checkpoint lets you access the service from your iPad, which is great if you need to reference material on the go.
Ted Needleman is senior director of the Technical Services Division of Industry analysts Inc., an independent market research firm and testing laboratory. He was previously the editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology, and writes frequently on software, hardware, and technology-related subjects.
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