Stressed tax preparers find relief in mardi gras, massages
Stressed Tax Preparers Find Relief in Mardi Gras,MassagesBy Ben Steverman - Mar 13, 2013Is the U.S. tax code an instrument of torture? At almost 4 million words, it is 14 times as long as thecollected novels of, say, Franz Kafka. It has been changed 4,680 times since 2001 -- more than once aday, 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. "Its almost comical. You want to laugh until you cry, sometimes." Marilyn Niwao, a lawyerand accountant based in Hawaii, recalls how when she started out 30 years ago, she had a "great timesaving people lots of money." Now, she and some other experienced preparers "feel stuck in ourprofession," 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, atax partner at accounting firm Holthouse, Carlin & Van Trigt.Puzzling provisionsFor minds looking for logic and clarity, many provisions of the tax code are puzzling, or evenabsurd. Why, asks Harlan Rose, a Wisconsin accountant who serves as president of the NationalSociety of Accountants, are there three mutually exclusive tax incentives for education, each with verydifferent eligibility requirements? When tax laws are changed retroactively -- as energy incentiveswere, 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 holdingscan now bring thousands of dollars of fines. Shannon V. Daly, who specializes in clients in the airlineindustry from her office in Greenwich, Connecticut, must comply with a new rule aimed atU.S. citizens who live and work abroad. For pilots of foreign airlines, all income earned overinternational waters is now taxable by the U.S. Thus, Daly must play cartographer, painstakinglycalculating 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 presidentof wealth adviser Lassus Wherley, based in New Jersey and Florida. “People just reach a point wherethey’re like, ‘Whatever!’”Party timeAccounting offices try to ease the stress of tax season with everything from Mardi Gras celebrations tomassages. Kelley’s office schedules themed costume parties: Picture your tax preparer at the FatTuesday party, draped in strings of purple and green Mardi Gras beads and scarfing down gumboand Kings cakes. Theyve also had parties to celebrate the opening of baseball season (this yearon March 31), at which everyone wears their favorite team jerseys, and Hawaiian Day, where theydrink frozen drinks and compete to wear the tackiest Hawaiian shirt.Christian hires a masseuse to pamper employees in the office. At his firms Orange County,California, office, which has a pool table and a ping-pong table, "we generally buy some busy-seasonitems 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 watchmajor sporting events like March Madness.The more traditional stress-relievers come into play, too. When hes not poring over tax returns six orseven days a week on six hours of sleep a night, Michael Allmon channels his stress into running. TheManhattan Beach, California-based accountant has trained for the Big Sur marathon, which takesplace in late April. On top of running and doing yoga, "Im thinking about taking up drinking becauseI understand thats a good release as well," jokes Lawrence Rosenblum, partner at the GrossbergCompany in Bethesda, Maryland.Playing therapist Warding off burnout is only half the battle for tax preparers. They must also play therapist for anxiousclients. When it comes to money, “there is this part of our brain that is freaking out all the time,” saysRussell Garofalo, the Brooklyn, New York-based founder of Brass Taxes, which specializes in the taxesof artists and freelancers. This neurosis comes out at tax time, when our tax returns can feel like “ascorecard 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 anxietyis eased. Lassus says client meetings can mean therapeutic venting for all, with clients complainingabout their tax burden, accountants complaining about stress and then both turning to lightersubjects, such as the two dogs she brings to work every day. "If all else fails, you pick up a puppy dogand 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 thetrips shes going to take in the off-season. Rosenblum says even travel is too much activity for theweeks after April 15, when he prefers to "mostly vegetate." He says it takes a good three to four weeksto recuperate: "Ive been doing this for 36 years. It doesnt get easier. It gets more complicated." ®2013 BLOOMBERG L.P. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.