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Tales from the Tax Return Season

Any accountant who has endured the onslaught of the self-assessment tax season has that one year that stands out in their personal hall of infamy. Yes, the stress of a mountain of tax returns is not enough; sometimes the self-assessment gods just want to inflict more pain.

Just by its very nature January itself and especially the 31st – self-assessment deadline day– is fraught with tension. Many accountants can recall memories of burning the midnight candle, feverously looking at the office clock, with each ‘tick-tock’ spelling one less second to file a tax return.

But when that knock on the office door comes midway through the last few days before deadline day, or you hear the stomach-churning rustle of a plastic bag, you know something is likely to go awry. For most people, these memories have consigned to a hidden corner of your mind and never to be spoken of again.

But today I’ve decided to excise my demons and will recount a handful of tales from my past January nightmares so others can learn from them (or just feel a little bit better at this stressful time of year).

Tax Return Season: The tax bill is ‘how much!!’

This was a heart-rending moment from a few years back; the SA tax deadline was Thursday and the Saturday before we had an enquiry from a new client. The lady on the phone said her husband was a subcontractor and he needed to complete his self-assessment tax return. I agreed to do my best as I was aware that the previous accountant had recently passed away after a long illness.

She arrived (heavily pregnant) with the paperwork all duly intact on the Monday and I made an appointment for her husband to come in on the Thursday (deadline day). Upon examining the records, I found that his business had increased its sales fourfold from the previous year.

On the Thursday morning, the lady who had had her baby on the Tuesday, arrived with the newborn and her husband. I opened up the conversation by commenting on how wonderful his business had been; and he explained that he’d won this major contract and had travelled the UK undertaking this work; it all had been beyond his wildest expectations.

I then presented him with his tax bill, which with NIC and the 50% payment on account totalled a whopping £34,000. The taxpayer had no comprehension of how much money he had earned, and unfortunately because he had been used to having tax deducted through the CIS scheme, he had no idea of how much he should have saved as he was used to receiving refunds.

His wife promptly burst into tears and clutching her newborn baby cried out: “That’s nearly as much as our house cost.” The baby then started crying and the husband put his arms round them both and started blubbing himself. I’ll never forget her words as I passed the tissues and tried not to get emotional myself.

It’s something in practice you have to get used to: divorce, bereavement, serious illness, all sorts; I’ve found that the key to saving the day is to have a spare box or two of man-sized Kleenex.

Tax Return Season: A perfect storm

Last January was one of the toughest we had had in a long time and involved a perfect storm of one-offs and coincidences.

Most of our regular clients get their records in on time, but last year the majority of them decided for some reason to send all their work in much later than they usually do. We also had an unprecedented amount of staff sickness and for 2 of the 4 weeks of January we were operating on 50% staff.

I asked a Pharmacist friend if our sickness levels were abnormal. “Yes”, he said: “however, this year here is a sickness and diarrhoea bug doing the rounds and it’s extremely contagious, so if one person in an office gets it the rest invariably follow.” Whilst that made me feel that it wasn’t just us, it didn’t help the matter.

And finally if tardy clients and sickness weren’t bad enough, are main server computer was knocked-out by a power surge and we lost 3½ days of input data. I will not forget January 2018 for a long time.

Tax Return Season: Please let my phone ring!

Picture the scene: our insurance company sent in workmen to refurbish our ground floor and reception area, following a cloudburst, when our downstairs was flooded. The fumes from the paint have been giving us headaches for a week, which was bad enough.

But at 2.05pm on January 30th, with five members of staff frantically working on the remaining outstanding accounts and tax returns, something happened that made us almost forget about the paint fumes.

The painter and his mate decide to remove (meaning cut any visible cables) the equipment in the server room and as a result, our telephone and internet disappeared! It transpired that the telephone lines had been cut and whilst I managed to get BT to divert calls to my mobile, frantic conversations with our insurance company were not as fruitful.

I politely (that may be slightly inaccurate) pointed out that there were in excess of £3,000 of penalties at risk for which I would l hold them responsible. After two hours of getting nowhere and plans afoot for taking computers home, a bright spark from the insurance company IT department obtained a dongle for us and we had the internet again.

All’s well that ends well. But by the point that everything came back online and the tax return filing resumed, the time had gone 8pm. At that point, I really understood what stress truly was!

Tax Return Season: Last minute.com

A few years back, when MJ&Co was still in its formative years, I would happily take on board anyone who came our way; even if they wandered in to us in late January, I would try to help.

There was one particular client I remember above all others. He phoned up in mid-January, said his was a small business which was on the point of taking off and asked if we could fit him in. From the conversation I was led to believe that his records amounted to a small file or two, so I readily agreed.

To my horror, two days later he literally wheeled in a large suitcase full of paper receipts, documents, invoices, HMRC correspondence etc. most of which hadn’t been opened. It was a complete horror show, but with the help of a staff member, we worked over the weekend and pulled it off.

Even now, if a new client comes in in late January asking “can you help” we’d do our best. However If that happens, I make it clear that I will include the overtime bill in his or her fees!