By CPA Trendlines Research
Are you a shoddy tax preparer? We doubt it.
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PRO Membership in CPA Trendlines demonstrates a certain commitment to professionalism – an understanding that tax preparation isn’t just a means of making money. It’s a responsibility and an obligation to do the job well.
The IRS receives more than 150 million federal income tax forms each year. A majority are prepared by paid preparers. Taxpayers and the tax system itself depend heavily on those who understand the tax code and how to file an accurate return.
The Last Thing Taxpayers Need
The last thing taxpayers and the tax system need are incompetent tax preparers. Unfortunately, there are plenty around – pseudoprofessionals who have no credentials whatsoever, have never passed any kind of competence exam and may know less about taxes than their client taxpayers.
Fake practitioners is also the last thing professional practitioners need. The fakes can offer unprofessional services at unprofessional rates, and with little to lose, they’re willing to let clients file artificially beneficial returns. When one flies by night, ethics are the baggage most often left behind.
Incompetence is not illegal. Despite the nation’s horrifically complex tax code, there is no competency requirement for tax preparers. Doctors, lawyers, financial planners, actuaries, appraisers, contractors, taxi drivers, barbers and beauticians all have to obtain licenses or certifications. In most cases, these professionals have to pass some kind of competency test.
But not tax preparers.
But what’s so complicated about preparing a tax return? With a quick review of the 74,000 pages of federal tax statutes and annotations, anybody can do it.
Well, not necessarily.
In 2006, the Government Accountability Office sent GAO auditors to 19 national tax return preparation chains. Using two carefully designed fact patterns, they had tax preparers prepare returns. Of the 19, 17 computed erroneous refunds with variations of thousands of dollars. Five yielded unwarranted excess refunds of nearly $2,000. Two caused the fake taxpayer to overpay by more than $1,500. In five out of the 10 cases that claimed Earned Income Tax Credit, preparers either failed to ask where the client’s child lived or claimed ineligible children.
The GAO tried again in 2014. Same results: 17 out of 19 wrong.
In 2008, the Treasurer Inspector General for Tax Administration tried the same trick with 12 commercial chains and 16 small shops. All preparers were non-credentialed. Sixty-one percent did the job wrong, and not one exercised due diligence in EITC claims.
The IRS and the National Taxpayer Advocate (an internal but independent agency within the IRS) say this has to change. If our byzantine tax system is to work, tax preparers need to be competent and certified.
In 2009, the IRS commissioner concluded that the IRS had the authority to impose minimum standards. After all due public discussion and exposure, it started to implement a competency regime.
Alas, the good intentions did not pass court muster. A U.S. District Court rejected the IRS’s legal position, concluding that the Service could not impose standards without statutory authorization.
Not quite yet. In 2018, a bipartisan Senate bill attempted to establish and enforce minimum standards, but it wasn’t passed. In 2019, the Senate tried again, and the House tried again, but neither made it to the president’s desk.
Competence, ethics and professionalism will become even more important if the IRS proceeds with plans to give preparers access to taxpayer information through online accounts. Do we want fake tax preparers looking at confidential taxpayer information?
Granted, competency certification would not ensure ethical behavior. But making the effort to earn certification and then pursue continued education would, like CPA Trendlines membership, demonstrate a commitment to professionalism. Certified preparers would recognize their responsibility and their essential role in the U.S. tax system. And they’d have a little more to lose if they engaged in misconduct.
The solution is not difficult. Congress can amend Title 31, § 330 of the U.S. code to authorize the Secretary of the Treasury to establish minimum standards for federal tax return preparers. Easy enough.
Enter Congress … please.