Tax preparers crunch the numbers with experience

Milwaukee Journal SentinelApril 2, 2014 

The need for tax preparers is growing, and that’s no surprise to Jessica B. Gatzke.

She digs into federal and state tax codes for a living, and sees that, as much as politicians might say tax laws should be simpler, they don’t seem to move in that direction.

Tax rules have become very complicated, she said.

“There are so many phase-outs and thresholds and exemptions and credits and deductions,” said Gatzke, a certified public accountant and senior manager with Scribner Cohen and Co. in Milwaukee. “Absolutely, it could use some simplification.”

But with easier-to-grasp tax rules not expected any time soon, professionals who can help their customers understand their tax obligations and accurately file returns are in demand.

While working with clients, Gatzke also recruits and works with the firm’s interns, including six currently.

With the April 15 tax filing deadline looming, Gatzke recently talked about being a tax preparer.

What does a personal tax preparer do?

“A tax preparer helps everyday individuals understand the complexity that is the U.S. tax code,” Gatzke said. “So we work with the information either provided by their employer or their financial advisers to make sure they’re in compliance with their annual filing requirement with the Internal Revenue Service.”

A lot of people think all tax preparers do is “enter numbers in boxes,” she said, but there’s much more to it than that.

It can mean working throughout the year with clients to make sure, for instance, that they’re not overpaying or underpaying taxes. Tax preparers also help clients consider how their investments will affect them, and whether they should be contributing to any sort of flexible spending accounts or dependent care account.

“We help with a lot of aspects of everyday life, and then at the end of the year, yes, we do put some numbers in boxes to fill out a return,” she said.

What training and education is needed?

“Certainly you need a bachelor’s degree in accounting,” Gatzke said. “That doesn’t have to be tax-specialized, but usually in most of the degrees you have some tax courses. And then from there, you really need on-the-job training and experience in preparing the returns, because each one is unique.”

Hands-on experience is one of the great benefits of being an intern.

“We give them two weeks of intensive training, learning about the tax code, learning about the preparation software and learning about the planning that goes along with tax preparation,” she said. “It’s the on-the-job, getting-your-hands-into-the-return training that really helps you become a good tax preparer.”

Not everyone is cut out for the job.

“The people we look for, they need to be inquisitive. They need to be detail-oriented. And obviously, they have to have honesty and integrity and follow-through. Those are some of the most important traits and characteristics we look for,” Gatzke said.

What is the most enjoyable part of your job?

“Working with my clients and working with our interns,” she said. “It’s helping them understand this crazy world of tax and helping them feel a little bit more comfortable and confident at the end of the day, so that they can go to bed and their obligation to file their return is done – and it’s done right.”

What one thing can taxpayers do to make filing easier?

“Keep records throughout the year,” Gatzke said. “There’s a lot of individuals who have small businesses that report directly on their individual income tax return. If they’re trying to summarize their entire business after the year’s over, it’s going to be real hard to get all that paperwork back together again.”

Clients should call their tax preparer throughout the year if any tax-related questions occur.

“That’s what we’re here for,” she said. “We’re here to help ease their mind and ease their pain when it comes to tax reporting.”

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