ST. ALBANS — Employers are starting to send out W-2 forms, which means tax season is upon us.
Those who have used a certified public accountant (CPA) in the past, or might be thinking of doing so this year to get help with the details of filing unemployment or stimulus check wages, might be wondering to themselves:
What will it look like to work with a CPA this year?
If you waited until the end of the traditional tax season last year to work with a CPA, or took advantage of the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) extension into July, things might not be all that different for you.
If you filed earlier in 2020 before pandemic restrictions prohibited certain things like meeting with an accountant in their office, 2021 will likely be a little different depending on how you want to interact with your CPA and what changes they have made to their operations.
As many would guess, virtual meetings will be widely popular in the accounting sector this year with videoconferencing and telephone calls being how a majority of business will get conducted.
The Messenger asked three CPA firms in Franklin County how they had to adjust to circumstances last year, what they learned from that tax season, and how they plan to go about working with the public to safely and effectively file taxes in 2021.
A.M. Peisch — St. Albans
After graduating with his bachelor’s in accounting in 1984, Chris Goulette joined A.M. Peisch and became a partner at the firm’s St. Albans branch. He said it wasn’t the most ideal situation to prohibit clients from going into the office when restrictions were put into place last March, as only a few had ever wanted to do business virtually before then.
“We were pretty much a hands-on office,” said Goulette. “We were pretty close to our clients, and we’d have a lot of them that would come into the office to meet with the staff.”
Between mid-April and early summer of last year, the CPAs had to take turns heading into the office to drop off and pick up items from the branch’s secretary, who was the only one allowed to be there full time. They needed to file returns electronically and get electronic signatures from their clients.
In order to let the accountants work remotely, A.M. Peisch started using Microsoft Teams for videoconferencing, and the firm was also able to set up its network so that calls could be forwarded directly to a CPA’s cell phone.
Those practices will continue into this tax season in addition to allowing clients to share documents through a secure, online file transfer system. Clients will still have the option, however, to mail files or leave them in the lock box at the building.
“If they don’t feel comfortable coming in the office, we are definitely going to try to — from this office — contact as much as possible,” said Goulette, but he also noted that meeting in person will still be possible if desired. “We’ll allow them to come in, but we try to minimize it as much as possible. We’re more going to the client, instead of them coming here.”
For in-person clients, A.M. Piersch plans to take temperatures upon arrival, require masks be worn, and disinfect between visits. The St. Albans branch also has two conference rooms that will allow for the CPAs and their clients to meet with additional physical distance that wouldn’t be possible in a smaller, personal office.
Whether meeting virtually or in person, Goulette is hoping that people are patient with their tax professionals this season.
“This is as new to us as it is to them — as far as all the refunds, and credits, and programs, and trying to make sure they’re all properly accounted for,” he noted. “It’s not going to be easy, especially with the [Paycheck Protection Program] loans and with the stimulus checks.”
Tax Pros — Swanton
Nancy Clayton, of Tax Pros, has been preparing tax returns for the public since 1981. She said that last year, a portion of her clients that she had been working with for 10 to 15 years didn’t feel safe going out and had to struggle through doing their taxes on their own.
In a smaller firm that has only herself and one other CPA, last spring was made more difficult as Clayton was the only one who could go to the office for about a month. As a result, she had to navigate getting proficient with videoconferencing on her own.
“It was a little bit difficult at first, because I was the only one that could be here,” said Clayton. “So I had to figure everything out myself. It was a little bit of a struggle, but I’m used to having to figure out things by myself.”
After that and through the end of tax season in mid-July, only one of the preparers and one client could be in the office at any given time. Since then, Clayton says they’ve given the workspace a massive overhaul including shampooing carpets, cleaning out older files, thoroughly disinfecting, installing clear dividers to separate employees and clients, providing hand sanitizer at the front door, hooking up an air purifier, and even giving it a fresh coat of paint.
“We clean everything that a client could possibly have touched before the next client comes,” she said.
This year, Tax Pros’ clients can submit their documents over a secured internet line — even sending photos of the paperwork with their phones — or they can drop them in a secured lock box on the exterior of the office. Clayton and colleagues are literally going the extra mile, or few, as they are planning to offer a pick-up service one day each week where they visit the homes of elderly clients, those who aren’t comfortable going to the office, or those who are weary of using the online system to submit their documents.
Clayton said she’s sent out messages to her clients about what options are available this year and has heard back from a few saying they will communicate completely virtually while a few others indicated they’ll drop documents off at the office when they’re ready. But for the most part, she’s entering a tax season unlike any she’s seen in her 40 years of preparing returns.
“I’m not sure what people are going to do right now,” she said. “I wish I knew. Really, it’s just the uncertainty of not knowing what’s gonna happen. We’ve invested a lot of money and effort into making it as safe as we possibly can.”
Kittell Branagan & Sargent — St. Albans
Greg Sargent, a founding member of Kittell Branagan & Sargent (KBS) with 40 years of accounting experience, said his firm learned a lot since the beginning of the pandemic from an information and technology perspective — especially in how it relates to working remotely.
Sargent said that last year, one of the biggest obstacles he and his colleagues faced was trying to do audits while out of the office, but, “The bigger challenge was that we had 20 people trying to work remotely. Our IT part of our system ended up having to be upgraded significantly — everything was a learning curve — but it was actually done very quickly and efficiently. So from that perspective, we’re in a lot better spot today than we were back when the pandemic first started.”
Helping that learning curve, Sargent said, was that KBS has been using an online portal for clients to share documents with the CPAs for about the last four years with an estimated 70% of its clients taking advantage of that software. Clients are able to upload their scanned documents or send images taken with a mobile device.
“There’s very little meeting in-person type things that happen,” said Sargent. “So that’s made that whole process a lot more efficient, but I don’t think that’s any different than it was [before]. For the most part, as far as the workflow goes, I don’t see it being a big challenge for anyone at this point.”
For the other 30% of the firm’s clients, those who might not have the technology to use the portal or simply don’t trust it, Sargent said they will mostly mail in their documents and will be able to continue doing so this year, or they can drop them off at the office with an appointment.
Sargent said KBS is not prohibiting in-person communication, but precautions will be taken such as mask-wearing and not holding larger meetings. And while he and his partners have seen people utilizing the portal more each year, they still like to provide that personal touch as much as possible, which taxpayers might not get with larger, online preparation companies.
“Our forte is obviously helping clients save, do planning, and do those kinds of things,” said Sargent. “So it still requires you to do the phone conversation, emails. Now with [Microsoft Teams], Zoom, Webex — you name it — there’s a lot of different formats out there now that you can communicate with folks face-to-face without even leaving your office and not even having to leave your house. So I’m anxious to see how that goes with this next tax season; I think that’s going to be a real benefit to everyone. You still have that face-to-face and interaction with your clients, which is important.”