Tax professionals all have stories of clients who wanted to cheat on their taxes. It might be tempting to nudge the line a bit to the left to keep a client happy and collect a fee. But you need to think long and hard before you make your decision.
If you prepare your own return you can avoid all the pesky demands of tax professionals to file an accurate tax return. Just as a tax professionals face serious penalties, so does the taxpayer. If you talk a tax professional into an unreasonable position on your tax return you will be penalized a lot faster than the tax professional. Tax preparers are really just entering data. She may not be aware of the malfeasance. That leaves you blowing in the wind. And a cold wind it is.
Then we have those instances where the issues are not clear. You can take a questionable deduction, within reason. If you disclose the position you’re taking you should be secure from penalties from an overzealous IRS agent.
The Client Not Worth Having
Bring up the subject of the unreasonable client or client from hell with tax professionals and they all go into cataleptic shock. A tax season isn’t complete without at least a dozen or three requests to do something industrial strength stupid.
A few years back my office had a client who included a receipt to deduct IMODIUM® and underwear. I pointed out the receipt and informed the client he hadn’t seen my bill yet so the deduction is not “regular and ordinary” and therefore not deductible. He is the good kind of client. He withdrew the deduction without complaint.
This tax season wasn’t as polite. As hard as I try to winnow down the client list somebody always comes up with a position that will not stand IRS scrutiny and has preparer penalty written all over it.
The client in question this year has been with my firm a few years. He always pushed the envelope too far and should have been shown the door a long time ago, but a certain accountant was a nice guy and listened to the BS.
In the past the client had us do his bookkeeping. That was too expensive so this year he threw everything in a box. I have employees who work exclusively bringing order to chaos. These employees are generally not tax professionals, but we do train them to sift the wheat from the chaff. Items in questions are reviewed by an accountant and added to the numbers if the deduction is allowed.
My friendly client likes to eat out. A lot! As in every meal. He threw every receipt into the box. Working on the road he filled the van with fuel often. Included on the receipt was always a bottle of water, gum or some other snack. The other items are NOT DEDUCTBLE!
If a few small items slip by I don’t lose sleep over it. I’m not auditing the return; I’m preparing it. Sorting wads of paper in a box isn’t bookkeeping. If you don’t care enough about your business to manage it correctly don’t expect me to work for free during the busiest time of the year bringing order to the mess. We separate receipts into piles based on our interpretation of type of expense (or if it is even a business expense) and run a z-tape on each pile.
Back to our client. All those meals and extra items on gas receipts were disallowed by my office. Dawn, a preparer in my office, separated out the questionable items and told the client she would not put those expenses on the return. The client was pissed. The only answer? Gotta talk to da boss.
The boss was having none of it. If you have a meal expense it is your responsibility to record the business purpose. You can NOT deduct everything you eat while on the road and dinner on the way home because that was related to work. NO IT’S NOT!
Smart tax preparers explain why the deduction is not allowed to the client. This is actually required by Treasury Circular 230, the publication regulating tax professionals practicing before the IRS. Section 10.21 clearly states a tax professional must inform the client of an unreasonable position. Nowhere in Circular 230 does it say you must fire the client, but Section 6694 of the Code is very clear: an unreasonable position by a preparer, even if disclosed, can result in penalty and even censure. Preparer penalties start at $1,000 for an unreasonable position and $5,000 for disregard of the rules.
The Most Important Number Every Tax Professional Must Know
For many years my office attended professional education classes taught by Jack Surgent. Jack is one of the smartest tax guys I’ve ever met.
During one of these training sessions we focused on ethics. When the topic of clients wanting to take illegal deductions came up Jack never stopped for comment. All he said was, “800. . . 799. Get it?”
The whole room better have. What Jack meant was if you have 800 clients and lose one you still have 799. Barely more than a tenth of one percent. No one client is worth it.
What Jack didn’t say, and I will, is, if you keep these clients it will hurt the profitability of your practice. Clients always pushing the envelope don’t want to pay for quality consulting. They want to cheat and if the boom is lowered will throw you under the bus before you open your mouth.
- Get it?
For the Folks Back Home Preparing Their Own Return
Nothing is more annoying than a highly trained and competent tax professional disallowing bogus deductions or not allowing unreported income. I see bloggers publishing some of the things they think are allowed. I quietly smile as I read knowing I’m not the one who will have to defend them in audit.
Treasury Circular 230 regulates most tax professionals. That doesn’t leave DIYers off the hook. The penalties can get large real fast for playing it fast and loose. Just failing to file a tax return by the due date (without a valid extension) subjects you to a 5% penalty per month up to five months (25%). If there is no balance due you at least avoid this one.
Section 6662 provides for a 20% accuracy penalty if you disregard the rules by failing to make a reasonable effort to comply with the tax code. The IRS automatically assumes you didn’t make a reasonable effort if they assess additional tax because if you did you wouldn’t owe the extra tax. You can fight this in appeals and might even win if you can substantiate you did make a reasonable effort.
Considering my ex-client above, he went to another preparer to get his return done. The other preparer has serious risk if she allows the deductions. The client is still on the hook for a Section 6662 penalty or even a $5,000 penalty for filing a frivolous return. If the numbers get big enough—I don’t think they were in this case, but then again I could be wrong—Section 7201 comes in to play. Section 7201 is the willful attempt to evade or defeat tax which is a felony, subject to a fine up to $100,000, up to a year in prison or both.
Don’t Be Scared
Now that I put the fear of god in you it’s time to take a deep breath and gain perspective. Honest mistakes are generally minor and the IRS rarely assesses a penalty or removes them relatively easily.
The discussion above isn’t about minor or honest mistakes. Small changes in an audit are usually disregarded by the IRS and treated as a “no change” audit. Most IRS auditors are pretty darn nice people. I’ve worked with them for several decades and one was an employee before she bed down with the enemy, ah, the IRS. Yes, there are a few knucklebusters out there, but even they don’t cause problems unless you invite them to.
Fear of an audit or penalties is unfounded unless you played fast and loose on your tax return.
If you do your own return you MUST take the time to educate yourself on the issues affecting your tax situation. Consulting with a tax professional doesn’t mean they must also prepare the return. I personally consult with many people who prepare their own taxes. I even consult other tax professionals. (It happens when you become the old guy on the block with three decades in the trenches.)
The takeaway from this post is thus: If you are a tax professional, do NOT relax your ethics for a fee. Educate your client, if they allow. If the client refuses to follow the rules remember Jack Surgent: 800; 799. No one client is worth your career, a fee or the headache. Move on. Life is better that way.
If you do your own tax return or hire a tax professional, insist on accuracy. Educate yourself on the issues affecting your taxes. There are so many ways to legally lower your taxes it is nothing short of insane to cheat on your taxes.
The only excuse is laziness and then you deserve what you get.