Is the U.S. tax code an instrument of torture? At almost 4 million words, it is 14 times as long as the collected novels of, say, Franz Kafka. It has been changed 4,680 times since 2001 -- more than once a day, according to the IRS Taxpayer Advocate. And it takes taxpayers (individuals and businesses) more than 6 billion hours to complete their filings.
"It’s information overload," says Lori Kelley, partner at accounting firm Warren Averett in Destin, Florida. "It's almost comical. You want to laugh until you cry, sometimes." Marilyn Niwao, a lawyer and accountant based in Hawaii, recalls how when she started out 30 years ago, she had a "great time saving people lots of money." Now, she and some other experienced preparers "feel stuck in our profession," she says, and preparing taxes is "super unpleasant and much more burdensome."
On the bright side: The latest changes are "the full-employment act for CPAs," says Blake Christian, a tax partner at accounting firm Holthouse, Carlin & Van Trigt.
For minds looking for logic and clarity, many provisions of the tax code are puzzling, or even absurd. Why, asks Harlan Rose, a Wisconsin accountant who serves as president of the National Society of Accountants, are there three mutually exclusive tax incentives for education, each with very different eligibility requirements? When tax laws are changed retroactively -- as energy incentives were, Rose notes -- how can they be providing an incentive to anyone without a time machine?
Especially frustrating are new rules on foreign activity. Failing to file a form about overseas holdings can now bring thousands of dollars of fines. Shannon V. Daly, who specializes in clients in the airline industry from her office in Greenwich, Connecticut, must comply with a new rule aimed at U.S. citizens who live and work abroad. For pilots of foreign airlines, all income earned over international waters is now taxable by the U.S. Thus, Daly must play cartographer, painstakingly calculating what portion of a client’s flights was spent six nautical miles from land. It’s “mind-numbing,” she says.
The frustration carries over into trying to give clients clear answers when there are none. "Clients’ eyes glaze over more quickly these days,” says Diahann Lassus, a certified public accountant and president of wealth adviser Lassus Wherley, based in New Jersey and Florida. “People just reach a point where they’re like, ‘Whatever!’”
Accounting offices try to ease the stress of tax season with everything from Mardi Gras celebrations to massages. Kelley’s office schedules themed costume parties: Picture your tax preparer at the Fat Tuesday party, draped in strings of purple and green Mardi Gras beads and scarfing down gumbo and King's cakes. They've also had parties to celebrate the opening of baseball season (this year on March 31), at which everyone wears their favorite team jerseys, and Hawaiian Day, where they drink frozen drinks and compete to wear the tackiest Hawaiian shirt.
Christian hires a masseuse to pamper employees in the office. At his firm's Orange County, California, office, which has a pool table and a ping-pong table, "we generally buy some busy-season items such as dartboards, Nerf basketballs, plastic bowling and other items to give ourselves a break," he says. They also upgraded to "mega flat-screen TVs" so tax preparers can take a break to watch major sporting events like March Madness.
The more traditional stress-relievers come into play, too. When he's not poring over tax returns six or seven days a week on six hours of sleep a night, Michael Allmon channels his stress into running. The Manhattan Beach, California-based accountant has trained for the Big Sur marathon, which takes place in late April. On top of running and doing yoga, "I'm thinking about taking up drinking because I understand that's a good release as well," jokes Lawrence Rosenblum, partner at the Grossberg Company in Bethesda, Maryland.
Warding off burnout is only half the battle for tax preparers. They must also play therapist for anxious clients. When it comes to money, “there is this part of our brain that is freaking out all the time,” says Russell Garofalo, the Brooklyn, New York-based founder of Brass Taxes, which specializes in the taxes of artists and freelancers. This neurosis comes out at tax time, when our tax returns can feel like “a scorecard as to how we’re doing in life.” Clients are prone to “totally irrational guesstimating,” he says -- for example, by overpaying their taxes out of fear of the IRS.
One benefit of tax time, Garofalo and others say, is the gratitude of clients when some of their anxiety is eased. Lassus says client meetings can mean therapeutic venting for all, with clients complaining about their tax burden, accountants complaining about stress and then both turning to lighter subjects, such as the two dogs she brings to work every day. "If all else fails, you pick up a puppy dog and put him in your lap," she says.
After such a rich stew of stress, most accountants are more than ready for some voluntary mind-numbing -- or at least outdoor -- activity. Daly says she keeps herself sane by dreaming about all of the trips she's going to take in the off-season. Rosenblum says even travel is too much activity for the weeks after April 15, when he prefers to "mostly vegetate." He says it takes a good three to four weeks to recuperate: "I've been doing this for 36 years. It doesn't get easier. It gets more complicated."
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