Tears and Taxes: Meet my therapist the accountant
Paul Thode, an accountant in Oakland, has a simple approach to
dealing with the unexpected emotions of clients during tax time: "I
try to be a good listener. A lot of times people just need to get it
off their chest and get on with it."
At some point you've probably sat in the waiting room of a
doctor's office and speculated about the medical conditions of the
people in the chairs around you. Is that woman in a turtleneck trying
to cover up a case of psoriasis? Does the man flipping through People
magazine have erectile dysfunction?
It was a similar -- call it morbid -- curiosity that got me
thinking this tax season about what everyone else is revealing
behind the closed doors of their accountants' offices.
When I interviewed a group of Bay Area tax professionals last week
about their war stories from tax seasons past and present, I half
expected to hear of their clients' breathtaking tax antics or secret
abnormalities -- the financial equivalent of supernumerary
nipples. Financial professionals, after all, are among a small
group of confidants -- like physicians or priests -- with whom we
share very private information and who accompany us during moments of
But what really stood out in my conversations with enrolled
and tax lawyers were the common patterns they encounter during
The human behaviors prompted by the likes of 1040s and W-2s can
range from the mundane to the melodramatic, but they seem to be
fairly universal. They can also be pretty emotional -- and this may
be why nearly every tax preparer I spoke with said their jobs
frequently required them to act as therapists.
"My actual designation is enrolled agent, but it should be
marriage and family counselor," says Sharon Hinchman, managing
partner of the Alamo-based Abacus Financial Group, which also has an
office in Berkeley.
Hinchman mentioned a basic dynamic in the couples she works with:
only one-half of any given pair is generally on the ball when it
comes to taxes.
"Every family has an accountant," she says, a consistent
refrain among the professionals I interviewed.
Jan Zobel, a tax practitioner with offices in San Francisco and
Oakland, says a similar pattern holds for both her heterosexual and
gay clients: "One partner is very organized, focused on doing
things correctly, and getting their ducks in a row. The other partner
Paul Thode, an Oakland-based tax practitioner, sees this a lot
with his senior-citizen clients, adding that when the tax-savvy half
of the couple dies, the widowed partner is often at a loss for how to
deal with the finances.
But the intra-family dynamics that accountants deal with go beyond
merely the yin-yang of partner roles. Hinchman, for example, says she
encounters a lot of emotionally charged family issues that stem from
"Sometimes I know about a divorce before the spouse,"
she says. "Or I'll get a call after a couple has just had a
hellacious fight, and she or he wants to have the tax refund put in
A death in the family can also spark touchy tax topics.
"You will always find one member of the family who will show
up as the bad seed -- and it's not always who you'd expect,"
Hinchman says. "They are the ones that want their share (of an
inheritance) now and so you have to sell the building even though
it's not a good market. Brothers and sisters get to fighting -- it
Not surprisingly, one of the other common emotions that tax
professionals encounter is fear -- of the IRS.
"People have had it drilled into their heads that the IRS is
as close as we can get to the secret police," says Stephen
Graves, a CPA in downtown San Francisco who has been preparing tax
returns for more than 40 years.
"The IRS (audit) is the adult equivalent of being called into
the office -- it's a very interesting, basic emotion," he adds.
"Twenty to 30 percent of my job is kind of like being a shrink,
and guiding them through that fear."
Zobel has seen a similar fear of the IRS -- and its slightly
"I had a client who was audited and won her audit," she
recalls, "but the next year she didn't want to file her tax
return until she had received written notification that she'd won her
audit. She sort of had this sense that the same people who'd audited
her would be opening her tax-return envelope -- a sense that the IRS
was that small."
Steven Vinje, a tax attorney based in Pinole, has helped clients
manage the opposite impression -- that the IRS is an impenetrable
In one case, he negotiated an offer
in compromise -- an agreement between a taxpayer and the Internal
Revenue Service that settles the taxpayer's tax liabilities for less
than the full amount owed -- for a client with unpaid taxes.
"When I wrote up her story, it made me cry," he says,
recalling the woman's series of family tragedies, including a husband
with post-traumatic stress disorder and the death of an AIDS-stricken
nephew whom she had taken into her custody.
Vinje sent the story to the government along with the offer, which
"It's always helpful to explain the reasons a taxpayer has
gotten behind in their payments," he says. "People who work
for the IRS in most cases are human."
If tax pros manage fear, they also deal with a sort of irrational
excitement. Another near-universal I heard from tax preparers is that
everyone loves a refund.
This may seem obvious -- who isn't happy about a hefty check come
April? It's like finding a $20 in your jeans -- lagniappe.
But that's exactly the problem: finding a lint-covered bill in
your Levis feels like free money, but it was yours all along.
So, too, with your excess tax payments: You could have been earning
interest on that money instead of having the IRS hold onto it for
Thode used to be puzzled by clients' fixations on refunds to the
point where they would overpay in taxes in order to get money back at
the end of the year. But he understands the emotional lure of such a
practice, particularly when interest rates are so low.
"People would rather get a big refund than have the money all
year, because they know they would fritter it away every week on
pizza or something," he says. "Instead, if they get a big
check in March or April they can go buy a new bedroom set or make a
down payment on a car."
Refunds notwithstanding, the tax professionals I spoke with time
and again mentioned tears in connection with tax time.
"I have a box of Kleenex in my office," says Thode.
"People can get very emotional. I have a client right now who's
in a foreclosure process, she's got multiple sclerosis, and she's 63.
She's looking at possibly being thrown out of her home.
"I have another client who lost his job after 20 years
because of the economy. He started to cry, and being a man he kept
apologizing for it. But I sure understood it."
Zobel remembers her early days in the business, when her San
Francisco practice was located in a suite of therapists' offices.
"I would often sit with people who would start crying when
they realized what they owed in taxes," she says. "And I
just thought, 'If I could just send them down the hall -- I didn't
know what to do. It's a very real thing for someone to learn they owe
She says she still has to manage the "shock" that many
clients feel when they see a tax bill they didn't anticipate.
So what are the tools that these tax practitioners use to cope
with sometimes-unexpected emotions that well up in clients who are
reckoning with the IRS?
From what I can gather, their techniques are decidedly
"I listen," says Thode. "I try not to patronize
them and say, 'Everything will be OK.' I try and be a good listener.
A lot of times people just need to get it off their chest and get on
It's a theme mentioned consistently by tax preparers: listen, try
to understand, and try not to judge.
"I try to be empathetic," says Hinchman. "Nobody
leaves my office without a hug."