'Can I claim my cat as a dependent?'

From their side of the 1040, tax preparers say there are too many excuse- makers and bad record-keepers.

Perhaps to their credit, most Americans don't know a W2 form from a Taco Bell coupon, or a 1040 form from WD40 bicycle lubricant.

That's where J. Arora comes in. Each year about this time, the turbaned tax preparer sits down in his four-by-four-foot cubicle in this Los Angeles suburb and deals with the numbers and neuroses of a long line of people who look alternately terrified and ticked off.

They usually leave feeling good or still ticked off.

"When we get our clients a refund, they treat us like gods," says Mr. Arora, a 20-year veteran of Jackson Hewitt, a big tax-accounting firm. "But when they find out they owe the IRS money, they often burst into tears and hate us."

To many Americans, professional tax preparers like Arora are mere numbers-noodnicks, ciphers who have spent a little too much time under a fluorescent light trying to decide whether a hot tub really can be declared as a medical expense. Worse, they're often demonized as agents of the IRS - money grubbers who want to part their clients from cash and coin.

But to hear the tax preparers tell it, they are moms and dads, teachers and preachers, hand-holding counselors to a nation of numerically challenged.

Indeed, from their side of the 1040 form, many of the 60 million Americans who come through their doors each year - a good number between now and next Monday - are a bunch of excuse-makers, whiners, weepers, fudge-the-liners, bad record keepers, and a lot more that can't be repeated by people who are also moms and preachers.

No deducting a living room

Some of these parallax views can be heard at the H&R Block office, just a few doors down from the Jackson Hewitt branch, and the evidence looks pretty strong for the number noodlers.

"I don't understand why my friend gets that deduction and I don't," says one client.

Another asks if she can claim her cat as a "dependent."

A third gets a brief lecture: "Ma'am, you cannot claim your living room as a business deduction just because you are grading your students' papers there."

Last week, Ellen Shanks, regional administrator for H&R Block, heard another one that caused her pause. A client said his car caught on fire with all his tax documents stuck inside.

"You should have seen his face when I told him we can still get copies from the IRS," Ms. Shanks says. And then came shock number two. "People don't seem to understand that when they apply for a deadline extension on their tax return, they still have to pay estimated taxes by April 15." (April 16 this year because the 15th falls on Sunday.)

Arora sees plenty of attempts at corner-cutting, too.

"People try anything and everything to pull a fast one over you," he says. That includes phony W2 forms and fully filled out 1040 forms that clients want the preparer to e-mail to the IRS without verifying any figures.

"They come in here with all kinds of weird documents and ask you to validate them," Arora says. "We do the simple calculations and if things don't add up, we simply reject them."

For those that have never used tax preparers, this revelation explodes myth No. 1. They are not co-conspirators with clients who are trying to pull green eye shades over the eyes of the IRS.

"We inform everyone that whatever figures they are putting down on these forms, they are responsible by law to document for the IRS," says J. Arora's wife, Nelu, who helps run his business. "That stops a lot of people who think they are going to get us to cover up for whatever false information they provide."

Creative accounting

To be sure, the vast majority of tax filers are honest people trying to file an honest return. It's the remaining 10 percent or so who are looking for a way to short change the government, often based on revenge for past wrongs.

"Most taxpayers who get caught have a list of rationalizations as long as your arm," says Robert E. McKenzie, a former IRS agent, now a Chicago tax attorney. "They range from 'I just went through a divorce and my wife got everything,' to 'the government took too much money last year and I'm trying to get it back.' "

The two biggest concerns bringing clients to these offices are fear of being audited by the IRS, and fear of owing money.

Obscure tax codes as well as changes from year to year also make potential clients wonder if they know enough about the laws to claim all the deductions they have coming.

"Why am I here?" asks Robert Rocha, a construction worker wearing a grey pullover sweatshirt. "Man, I don't want to fill out this form wrong and go to jail."

Alongside funeral parlors and dentists offices, the ante-chambers of America's tax preparers may rank at the top of venues where most citizens don't want to be.

Some of that anxiety is showing here on this day. Clients come in clutching receipt-jammed bags that bulge like an overweight wolverine stuffed by a bad taxidermist.

Many of these are the procrastinators, those who have waited until the last minute to file because they owe money and don't want to part with it.

"It's human nature to avoid the pain," says Teresa Ramirez, a first-year H&R Block preparer.

Hey, we're not 'square' people

One other observation is certain after hanging out in several tax operations for several days: Tax preparers are sober people, who love numbers, problem solving, and details.

"We're pretty square people," says Steve Hamidi, who has run his own tax operation for 25 years. "We don't joke much, we go by the rules, we don't get excited that much, we don't get angry, and we look at everything as just another task to do."

But that comment arouses the ire of other fellow preparers.

"Hey, I like to cross stitch," says Ellen Shanks.

"I like nature walks," says colleague and 10-year-veteran Abe Sopher.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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