It's 1040 Time again, and accountants around the land are hunched over their calculators tallying the credits and debits of America's 80 million taxpayers.
And they have it tough.
"I got home the other night at 7 o' clock," says New York accountant Steuart Kessler, "and my son said to me, 'What are you doing home so early.' These four months you go through are probably equivalent to the other eight."
The Internal Revenue Service, which claims to know such things, says that 45.5 per cent of the individuals who file use accountants or "tax preparers" of some sort to help them. The IRS itself needs only 35,753 employees to process all those returns in its 10 service centers. Which means there's a lot more work involved on the giving than on the taking end.
"The real job of an accountant is helping people understand and identify what they need - identifying problems and minimizing the tax impact of business transactions," says Anne Stone, the 29-year-old manager of the tax department at Peat, Marwick Mitchell and Co., the world's largest accounting firm. "Tax returns are like big puzzles, and I actually have a lot of fun figuring them out. Of course, it's probably boring to anyone but an accountant."
It was boring for the first 10 years," says Jerome Lewis, who's been working with Regardie, Brooks and Lewis for 21 years. "Then the situations you get into become more complex and none of them seem the same."
"One of my predecessors once told a group of accountants, "I can't understand why you're so incredibly dull,'" says Sandy Jacobs, the writer who tries to bring a certain amount of humor to The Wall Street Journal's Tax Report every Wednesday.
"I'm 38," he says, "but now 70 as a result of this column. I have to wade through the same stuff tax lawyers do. Only I get a chance to do it; they don't. I'm the guy who reads all the footnotes, looking for the serendipitous and the irreverant."
Like most things, there are two ways to view tax stories.
"Everybody thinks they're funny," says the IRS' Leon Levine. "A couple of years ago some farmer who couldn't afford a trough was using an old bathtub to feed his calfs. One of them fell in and drowned. So he got to deduct it. You may think that's humorous but it wasn't very funny to the farmer."
Kessler tells of a woman who listed "Thomas" as one of her dependents.
"'Is he really a dependent?' I asked her. 'Of course,' she said, "He's the best cat I ever had. He doesn't earn over $750 and I provide more than half his support. I told her it had to fall into a specific category and she said, 'Well, I treat him just like a son.'"
Levine says this comes up frequently, and points out that "your doggy or pussy cat don't qualify as dependents."
There are frustrations. A Maryland client of Lewis' who hasn't yet filed his return got a refund check in the mail last week. Someone in California has the same name and Social Security number, and in trying to straighten it out the IRS assigned a third person with the same name, the same social security number.
There are gimmicks. An accountant in Buffalo will hold a drawing for his clients on April 16 and award the winner a free trip to Las Vegas. A chance to win it all back, so to speak.
And there are classics. Perhaps the best is the famous clarinet story. The family sends the kid to the orthodontist and he says: "This kid doesn't need braces; he needs clarinet lessons." So the kid gets three years on the clarinet to straighten out his teeth and daddy gets to deduct it as a medical expense.
Not all the stories come from accountants who work with firms or big companies. Just as there are some doctors who still make house calls, there are some accountants who still will come to your home and do the dirty deed in less than two hours. Relaxed. Painless.
Meet Salvatore. He will come to your home. He will meet you on a street corner. He will not talk to reporters who use his real name. He is 55. From the Bronx. For 9 years an IRS agent. Now retired from the government. Likes to go fishing off the coast of Atlantic City, N.J. Likes to visit his relatives in Sicily. Does income tax returns for about 50 clients a year now, including a few Washington prostitutes.
"This one girl had a nice little office with a typewriter and a cot and a portable stereo," Salvatore says. "She posed as a public stenographer. Well, let me tell you, that typewriter was pretty dusty. It's very hard to depreciate something that's never been used. But Uncle Sam doesn't care where your dough comes from, as long as you report it. And as long as it's earned."
Then there are the situations that hit bettors, some of Salvator's other clients.
"There aren't many big winners," he says. "Losses aren't deductible beyond your wins. So I tell my clients to take a shopping bag to the track and pick up piles of tickets to support their losses."
Henry Bloch, who actually exists in Kansas City as the head of H & R Block, tells plenty of stories, too. About one of his local clients, age 89, who was very concerned about the tardiness of his refund check, "because he was afraid he'd die before it came." About the stewardess in Boston who asked her Block tax preparer if she could take off her clothes. He said "No" and she said, "I thought uniforms were deductible." About the time a first-day employee started listing deductions on a client's form, only to discover that the man had one wife and 22 children. About the couple in Arkansas, who claimed $400 for home repairs and $187 in concomitant medical expenses after a neighbor fell through their outhouse.
Bloch says his company prepares 10 per cent of all the returns filed annually. Last year the average fee was $18,45, and the company grossed $124 million. Yet Bloch still does his own tax return.
"I guess I just like to keep my own figures pretty confidential," the 54-year-old executive says. "You don't want the people you're working with to know how much you gave various charities and spent on medical bills."
Salvatore thinks the government could help everybody out and make filing taxes more simple. "I tell you," he says, "some guy could become the most popular President we ever had if he'd make them teach kids in elementary school how to fill out the forms. I mean, there's only death and taxes, right? So why not make the taxes easy?"