Attorneys-by-day Bob Brookens and Susan Robson are not exactly superheroes by night, but their clients may consider them a saving grace during tax season, when both moonlight as tax preparers.
“It’s a community service,” Brookens said. “Yeah, we get paid for it, but it started off because attorneys have clients who don’t know where else to turn. Someone asked me if I would do their return, I said ‘Yeah, I will.’”
That was in 1978, when Brookens began filing returns for clients. When his office got two computers in the ’80s, he and Keith Collett, a partner at his firm at the time, would both file returns.
“Keith Collett and I would sit next to each other and clank them out until 2 in the morning, and then go home,” he said. “It was nice having somebody there for when you were ready to throw your shoe at the computer.”
Brookens said it can take as little as 20 to 30 minutes to file a return, or between six and seven hours for more complicated returns.
He said he doesn’t file as many returns as he used to — at one point he filed more than 350 annually — because more people are beginning to do their own.
“That’s healthy,” he said. “If someone has a basic mom-and-dad return, with their W-2s, they should do their own. Some people are uncomfortable just because it deals with the IRS, and we understand that.”
Robson agreed that individuals filing their own returns is a good thing.
“Tax programs have gotten really good to where if you have your W-2s, or if you have student loans, then it makes sense to do it that way,” she said.
Robson said she enjoys doing returns, but that she’s comfortable having a small clientele.
“If somebody wants me to do them, I’m not going to turn them down,” she said. “But also I’m not going to have an ad on TV.”
The alternative to receiving local help is to use a national franchise, which Brookens said can be a risk.
“Some of them are well-trained, and some of them are frightful,” he said. “But in a small town, there’s no justification to set up that kind of a business. You’re not going to make a full-time thing of it.”
Brookens said he likes the work because it connects him further with his clients.
“I enjoy seeing my clients, I really do,” he said. “For a lot of people seeing tax clients is seeing people at their worst; I don’t see it that way. I’ve made many very good friends because of tax season.”
Robson said she enjoys figuring out the tax return because it’s like a puzzle.
“It’s a little bit of a different kind of thing than what I do every day over here,” she said. “It’s kind of nice to have a little variety. It’s using a different part of my brain than reading reports and going to court.”
Brookens said returns filed by a paid preparer must be completed online, which became a rule in recent years.
“Is it scary to do it online? No, because if you have an error, it will tell you,” he said. “To the client, it means the prospect of getting the refund much sooner.”
However, Internet programs don’t mean that expertise isn’t required.
“People assume that because you have a program, you don’t really need to know anything,” he said. “You need to know what goes where and why, and to analyze whether it came out how you expected it to. If you make an error and it’s in the government’s favor, they will not tell you. Nor are they required to.”