NSA Members Reflect Back on Tax Season 2016: A Busy Season that Emphasized the Importance of Client Education and the ACA Caused All Kinds of Client Confusion.
As diverse as clients might be from the Northeast to the West Coast, there are unifying traits among their tax professionals. From shared frustrations over delayed 1095s to a mutual understanding that April 18 was a day to close the office on time, NSA members reflect on the frustrations of the past tax season and consider the learning opportunities that have prepared them for the next one.
“Mess,” “confusion” and “late:” These were common descriptions of recurring issues from the tax season. More often than not, the professional was referencing the 1095 forms associated with the Affordable Care Act. Terry O. Bakker, EA, Oregon, says that her clients didn’t know what these forms were when they received them. When clients encounter paperwork that’s new and foreign, it often hits the trashcan instead of their preparer’s desk. Gene Bell, EA, ATA, CFP, Washington, adds that the 1095 debacle was delay; clients should have had forms by the end of January but didn’t receive them until March or April. “Even last week [the first week of May], I was getting corrected forms,” Bell says. The tax professional can only do his or her job when the clients are prepared, and many clients were scrambling for documents.
When the tax season wraps, professionals turn their attention to client education. The primary goal of education is preparation for the upcoming season. Ruth Godfrey, EA, California, insists that the key to education is highlighting the most important facts. “The client letter needs to call attention to items without being so wordy that people won’t read it, ” she says. Andrew J. Piernock Jr, ATP, Pennsylvania, plans to send his client letter in late December this year and will list any new tax laws that might affect client returns. He also mentions that Pennsylvania piloted a new program requesting copies of drivers’ licenses for identity verification, so he wants his clients to be prepared for that. Bell adds that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires “more pre-emptive and proactive work. We’ll send notices to clients about informing us if they’ve changed jobs, gotten married, had a kid. Those are the kinds of details that need to be picked up by the ACA.” Less than a month after the end of tax season, Robert Thoma, EA, ABA, ATA, ATP, ARA, Illinois, was already at a seminar with other professionals “going over the issues and refreshing ourselves on what to do next year.” In addition to educating clients about what to have on-hand next year, Thoma says another of his goals is helping those with small businesses or unpredictable income sources create better tax-planning preparations.
Staying informed and prepared is vital to the practice — and not just because tax laws are constantly changing. The clients are changing, too. As Godfrey points out, the advice must adapt as clients age. She’s seeing a lot of growth in estates and trust in her practice; what’s more, these older clients need additional education about IRS phone scams as they’re the likelier demographic to be targeted. As for Bakker, she acknowledges that tax returns are simply more difficult now. “They all came with some odd complexity this year…It used to be that you could pump out three to four returns in an hour. This year, it was about one per hour.” Bakker cites the complexity of the tax code and additional requirements as the reason for this change, as well as her office’s changing direction. “We’ve started taking more challenging, higher-end clients and not the easy ones that people often use online software for,” Bakker says.
How do you make the most of your tax season workday when you’re missing information, handling complex client cases and working from a tax code that’s constantly changing? Holding fast to one rule you don’t break during tax season is one way to guide your workflow — and your practice. For Piernock and Godfrey, that rule is about balance. “Don’t work on Sundays,” Piernock says. Godfrey agrees, “I don’t alter my schedule; I need time to recharge for the next day.” She also adds, “I don’t alter my value system,” a sentiment Thoma echoes. “No shortcuts!” he says. “We will not jeopardize our license for their greed. Even if it means losing a client, we don’t let them push us.” Bell’s perspective is about details. “We do not let any of our clients not fill out our questionnaire. We’re not clairvoyant. Every year, everyone fills it out again.” That starts his season on an informed, clear note.
There’s a lesson to be learned here. Educate your clients to promote preparedness, stick to your values and keep your personal time sacred. This all adds up to a successful tax season that ends before the sun sets. These NSA members didn’t leave their offices past 6:45 pm, and most closed up around 4:30. Thoma puts it like this: “Statistically and historically, if you rush through a return on the last half of the day, you’re going to make an honest mistake. Or a mess.”
Candace Gibson is a freelance writer living in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia. Her work has appeared on HowStuffWorks.com and TLC.com, as well as in the Careforce Chronicle, a publication of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Candace’s nine-year editorial career includes highlights like hosting “Stuff You Missed in History Class,” a former iTunes Top 10 Society/Culture Podcast, and producing original digital videos for Discovery Communications. Candace balances a quiet, contemplative writer’s lifestyle by teaching high-energy barre classes at a boutique fitness studio.