One month to go! For about 95 million Americans, the next month of preparing their tax returns is a time of frustration, anger, trepidation or the intense desire to comb beaches in Tahiti.
But there are those who see all this misery from anothe view. The tax preparers, those ticket-takers at the gates of limbo, must feel chills of satisfaction at taking mere mortals by the hand through the ridiculous to the sublime.
This year more people probably will be rushing to meet the April 15 deadline. Last month Internal Revenue Service offices and commercial tax preparation services both reported receiving 6 percent to 9 percent fewer completed forms than at the same time in 1980. The main reason: the IRS mailed the forms out late.
About 4 1/2 million taxpayers are expected to file in the District, Maryland and Virginia. Last year their tax bill totaled $18.9 billion, with District and Maryland residents anteing up twice the amount paid by Virginians. This year IRS regional offices report that D.C. and Maryland returns are being received somewhat faster than the national average; Virginians are filing 11 percent faster. The IRS attributed it to the good weather and their haste to get their refunds, averaging $610 per return.
For those area residents who have not yet filed, there remains the question of who will do the taxes. In 1976 almost half (47.3 percent) of all U.S. taxpayers were paying someone else to do the duty work. That same year Congress enacted a major simplification of the tax system. That, together with a change in the IRS definition of a preparer to include only those that are paid, reduced the number of returns signed by third parties to 39.3 percent by 1979.
H&R Block, the best-known of the commercial tax preparers which began doing tax returns in 1955, last year did about 10 percent of all individual returns filed, according to company figures. The company, which owns or franchises 9,000 offices, had sales of $276 million, of which preparation fees amounted to $149 million. Franchise and royalty fees accounted for another $80 million.
The IRS offers taxpayers free assistance at its regional and local offices. It has 702 permanent and 142 temporary offices throughout the country. Last year it aided 35 million taxpayers by phone and 8 million in its offices.
Although the representatives are not supposed to do the actual returns, they will supervise taxpayers filling out forms, provide necessary forms and do calculations. Taxpayers can expect an hour's wait at lunchtime but less in early morning or late afternoon, according to the IRS. For some taxpayers, the IRS will calculate the taxes due or the refund if they mail their signed returns, together with W-2 form.
In addition to its regular aides, the IRS has trained volunteers who work in community centers. There are over 300 of these in Maryland and the District. Unlike the IRS offices, they are open nights and weekends. The free service is intended primarily for low-income, disadvantaged, elderly and Spanish-speaking persons. However, an IRS spokesman said no one with a simple return will be turned away. Volunteers also will make house calls for those unable to visit the centers.
How does the free help taxpayers get from the IRS compare with that purchased from commercial and professional preparers? The official advice from Uncle Sam is to do it yourself if you can use the short form and 45 percent of all taxpayers qualify for it. The government declines to reveal whether taxpayers are more likely to have their returns audited if they are prepared by a third party. Similarly, there is no public information on whether outside preparers succeed in getting bigger refunds for their clients.
The classic way of illustrating which is the better deal is to try out the same tax information on the IRS and several preparers. It is a haphazard method at best and a travesty at worst -- but it's popular with news media. This past week, for example, two local television stations ran their own versions of the tax game.
WJLA-TV, Channel 7 had Georgetown University accounting professor Michael Skigen develop a return for a mythical family of four. The income of the spouses totaled $40,000, and their deductions included moving expenses, job hunting travel expenses, mortgage points and overpayment of Social Security. Skigen calculated the fictional family was due a refund of $485. Each of the six outside preparers whom producer Neal Friedman anonymously asked to do the return found the taxpayers owed money to the government.
H&R Block's Bethesda office found an additional liability of $1,238 and charged a fee of $49. Block's Northwest office found $680 more and charged $76.50; Household Finance Corp., $189 and $65; M.O.S. Associates of Bethesda, $615 and $81; and Charles Mundt of Oakton, Va., $568 and $55. The IRS walk-in office in Washington said $540 more, please; no charge.
Identifying himself and his mission, Friedman then took the return to the IRS District Office in Baltimore. The verdict was a refund of $305. So, in the end, the mythical taxpayer would have been best served by having an IRS tax expert do his return. Although Skigen's refund was larger, he would have charged $190 for the service, leaving a net refund of $295.
Friedman said he played a "dumber-than-average" taxpayer and did not ask the preparer whether certain items were deductible. The item most frequently overlooked by preparers was moving expenses. The difference in liability determined by the two Block offices is due to the failure of one to pick up a $675 deduction for mortage points; the differnce in fees is due to the use of the income-averaging form at one and not the other.
WDVM-TV, Channel 9 took an actual return of a recently divorced man with a $50,000 income to four commercial and professional preparers. H&R Block found the taxpayer owed $280 and charged a $41 fee. Tax lawyer Leonard Levy claculated a $304 refund and charged $80. Doretha Parks, a commercial preparer, estimated a $1,081 refund and charged $35.
According to reporter Ellen Kingsley, Block's represenative didn't average the taxpayer's income and didn't allow the taxpayer, an economist, to deduct his general interest publications. The lawyer did. Preparer Parks mistakenly allowed all political contributions and made mistakes in averaging, Kingsley said.
The taxpayer also visited M.B. Hartion & Co., CPAs. He was told the firm could do his return for $200 or $300 but that he really didn't need professional preparation. The CPA then gave the taxpayer an hour's free advice and sent him home to do his own return.
Paid tax preparers usually are divided into two groups: professional and commercial. The first includes lawyers, Certified Public Accountants, enrolled agents and public accountants. The second consists of companies like H&R Block and indeed anyone who accepts payment for preparation.
Tax lawyers generally handle only the most complicated returns, often involving estate settlements or business sales. Their forte is litigation, taking the IRS to Tax Court when the taxpayer had been unable to settle his dispute with the government. According to The Wall Street Journal, an attorney's time for doing a return runs from $80 to $250 and hour and up.
The American Bar Association tax section has 23,800 members. A substantial number of these are believed to be tax practioners. However, since lawyers -- unlike physicians -- do not classify themselves by speciality, it is not known how many of them actually earn their living primarily from tax related work. Tax lawyering generally pays well.
Accountants also do commercial complicated returns. Public or licensed accountants charge less than Certified Public Accountants, and small CPA firms charge less than the so-called Big Eight accounting firms. In contrast to the $100 for federal and state returns many small firms charge, The Wall Street Journal prices Big Eight services at $40 an hour for lower-level staff and $100 and up for partners. It adds that most big firms have minimum fees between ?$200 and $500 to discourage taxpayers who don't really need their help.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants has a membership of 168,000, growing at 9 percent a year. The eight largest accounting firms in the country had worldwide revenues in fiscal 1980 of about $6 billion. The exact figure is secret since most of their privatly held companies refuse to reveal their earnings. About 20 percent of their work is taxes. The domestic portion of that works out to about $600 million.
All of the Big Eight have offices in Washington. They employ about 20,000 people. Harvey Lampshire, executive director of the D.C. Institute of CPAs, estimates there are 2,500 to 3,00 CPAs in the metropolitian area. He calculates tax-related revenues nationwide at closer to $2.5 billion annually by multiplying 84,000 CPAs working primarily on taxes by average annual billing of $30,000 each. In Washington, where billings are twice the national average, he estimates revenues of the 850 or so CPAs primarily dependent upon tax work at $5 million annually.
Enrolled agents are accountants, CPAs, and others who have passed a U.S. Treasury examination on tax law. They prepare returns without unusual complications and can negotiate with the IRS on the client's behalf. There are 23,600 enrolled agents in the country. Their fees run about $50 an hour, so a typical return might cost between $75 and $110.
Commercial preparers include anyone who receives a fee for doing someone else's return. No particular expertise is required, although large chains say there are several levels of training employes undergo. Just one state, Oregon, requires them to pass a qualifying test. The IRS maintains a list of preparers convicted and suspected of fraud, as well as those penalized for infractions ranging from willful misconduct in understating tax liability ($500 fine) to failure to maintain records. But it is not public information. A General Accounting Office audit is now in process to determine how effective the penalties, initiated a few years ago, have been in curbing abuses.
According to the Bureau of Census, there were 2,316 tax preparation establishments in 1977 with receipts of $273 million. The primary market of commercial preparers is the simple 10409 return of the taxpayer earning about $15,000.
H&R Blocks revenues were up 10.6 percent last year, and profits rose 9 1/2 percent. The increases stemmed from fee hikes since the number of returns prepared last year, 9.1 million, was up just 0.26 percent. Fees, which averaged $26.68 last year, are in the $30 range this year.
Beneficial Corp., a Wilmington-based consumer finance company, has been doing returns for a decade. Its 2,400 employes in 1940 offices did 250,000 individual returns last year. Beneficial boasts that only 50 of those returns resulted in penalty payments. Like Block, Beneficial agrees to pay all interest and penalties, but not additional tax, resulting from errors on the preparers' part.
Like Beneficial, Household Finance Corp. runs a tax service as one way of recruiting clients for its consumer loan service. HFC, which began doing taxes three or four years ago, has 1400 offices. Advice on Preparers
Advice from the Internal Revenue Service on commercial preparers:
1. Use the same care in selecting a preparer as you would your doctor or lawyer, asks friends for recommendations.
2. Ask how long the preparer has been in business, his background and experience.
3. will the preparer be around after April 15?
4. Never sign a blank return.
5. Be wary of a promised refund.
6. Never have the refund sent to the preparer.
7. Be wary of preparers claiming special contacts or relations with the IRS.
8. Be wary of a preparer whose fee is based on a percentage of the refund or tax due.
9. Be wary of a preparer who advises fradulently reducing income or increasing deductions claimed.