Friday, August 29, 2008

IRS NATIONWIDE TAX FORUM 2008

Each year after schlepping from 41st Street and 8th Avenue to 53rd and Ave of Americas in the height of the summer heat I vow “never again”. But each year I again enroll in the IRS Nationwide Tax Forum held at the Hilton in New York City. This year I had intended to avoid the heat and the schlep and take a taxi from the Port Authority!

For those of you who know not of what I speak, each year since 1990 the IRS Nationwide Tax Forums, a program of the Service’s Office of National Public Liaison, are be held in six cities across the US during July, August and September.

The Forums offer three full days of seminars with the latest word from the IRS leadership and experts in the fields of tax law, compliance and ethics. Attendees can earn continuing professional education credits, learn about the latest IRS e-Services products and schedule a visit to the Practitioner Case Resolution Room (where each practitioner participant may present one case to IRS decision-makers who can, according to the IRS promotional literature, 9 times out of 10 resolve them “on the spot” – so far I have not taken advantage of this service). The forums also feature a two-day Expo with representatives from the IRS, business, finance and tax software companies offering their products, services and expertise.

The New York area event (which before I started to attend was held in Atlantic City – again my timing sucks) is one of the most well-attended, with, as the keynote speaker pointed out, once again over 2000 registrants from all 50 states (last year there was even one from Switzerland).

Once the schedule, which is the same at each Forum location, was released earlier this year I chose the seminars I wished to attend and worked it out so that I would attend pretty much a full day on Tuesday (the first day) and a half day on Thursday (the last day), with Wednesday off for my regular weekly visit to my folks in assisted living at the Jersey Shore.

Tuesday started out great! It was brisk outside as I walked to Kennedy Boulevard, where a bus was actually waiting for me at the corner. There was no traffic (too early) going into “the City” and no lines at Deli Plus in the terminal where I stopped for breakfast. When I left the terminal it was still somewhat brisk, with a nice cool breeze, so I decided “what the heck” and began once again to schlep.

I actually learned something by schlepping through the streets of New York. A Broadway musical version of Irving Berlin’s WHITE CHRISTMAS, the beloved Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye holiday movie (it is a rare movie that I can watch just about every year without tiring of it) is coming! WHITE CHRISTMAS will open at the Marquis Theatre in November and run until January of 2009.
Click here for the show’s website.

The “express check-in” at the Forum is indeed express – the fastest check-in anywhere. All one does is have the bar code on one’s name tag swiped and get handed a large IRS bag with all the various “stuff” inside. It takes 5 seconds. Along the same lines the “sign-in” at each session is equally simple – you just swipes the bar code under a machine reader on the way into the room and your attendance is recorded.

My first session was “Overview of 2008 Income Tax Law Changes”. At each Forum I have attended Bob Ericson of the IRS Forms and Publications division manages to squeeze an excellent presentation of tax law changes into the 45 minutes allotted to him (actually each session is a 50-minute hour as per CPE guidelines, but about 5 minutes are allocated at the end for questions). There was one year when the changes were so voluminous that a 100-minute general session was devoted to the topic. As one would expect the 50 minute time constraint does not allow for anything other than a basic “overview” of any topic, which is one of my major complaints about the Forum.

Bob told us that there were six (6) Tax Acts passed in 2008, and there are still at least three (3) pending. His presentation mentioned the new $30 per month ($360 per year) exclusion from federal income tax for payments made by a state or local government to members of a “qualified emergency response organization” such as a volunteer fire department or a volunteer EMS squad, and the fact that now 80% of allowable meals for “transportation workers” (including over-the-road interstate truck drivers) are deductible (while the rest of us poor souls continue to be limited to 50%).

The annual Keynote Speech followed in general session, again this year given by IRS Chief Counsel Donald L. Korb (who will be returning to private practice early next year). This address rarely provides any “meat” or tells us anything about the IRS perspective on tax law or other tax issues. It basically “pats the back” of the registrants, telling us that we honest, competent tax professionals provide an invaluable service in the process of tax administration, and brags about the IRS accomplishments of the past 12 months.

Actually the IRS has the right to brag this year. In two separate cases the IRS shined in its response to foolish acts of Congress – i.e. waiting until the day after Christmas to pass the annual one-year AMT patch and deciding to once again send “stimulus” rebate checks to Americans, a tactic that failed the last time it was done and so far looks like it will be a failure again.

There was a too-long lunch break before the next set of educational sessions so that registrants could attend the official opening of the Exhibit Hall. The hotel offers breakfast and lunch items will be available for purchase at an on-site concession, but the cost, especially for lunch, is way too expensive, even for NYC. I “brown-bagged” it. Another of my major complaints about the Forum is that in my 35+ years it is the only educational seminar or workshop offering that does not provide registrants with at least free coffee!
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My choices for the afternoon sessions were presented not by IRS employees but by representatives of the Service’s membership-organization “partners” – the American Association of Attorney-Certified Public Accountants (AAA-CPA), the American Bar Association (ABA), the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the National Association of Enrolled Agents (NAEA), the National Association of Tax Professionals (NATP), the National Society of Accountants (NSA), and the National Society of Tax Professionals (NSTP).

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The first was “An Overview of the Most Common Mistakes Made by Tax Preparers” presented by a member of the National Society of Accountants who has been in practice longer than I have. The mistakes in question were made on paper-filed (and for the most part computer software generated) returns and not via e-file. Coincidentally, as the instructor pointed out, they are pretty much the same as the most common mistakes made on “self-prepared” paper returns.

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The instructor began his presentation by asking for a show of hands of those who still prepare tax returns by hand. My hand and four (4) others went up. This was in a room of close to 600 tax professionals – so less than 1%. As usually happens in this situation the instructor said something to the effect that “I now know 5 people who know the tax law”, implying that the rest of the audience was really nothing more than data entry clerks. I love it!

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He told us that the majority of the mistakes were a result of “our” (or rather, in my case, “their”) “data entry skills” and problems and deficiencies with the software programs. The fact that tax preparation software programs cause so many mistakes among professional tax preparers, who should know the tax law, is just one more reason why the “uninitiated” should not attempt to self-prepare returns using tax software – regardless of what the tv ads promise.

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The instructor told us that the way to avoid these mistakes is to ask our clients more, and more detailed, questions and to improve internal procedures for checking returns. Instead of just signing returns that have been spat out by the computer at the end of the day, preparers should actually look at the returns they are signing (you mean to tell me that every tax preparer does not at least mathematically check every computer-generated return!).

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My last session of the day was “Zero Capital Gain Rate” presented by Larry Gray, long-time NATP member, and former President, whose classes I have attended on many occasions over the years. Larry always does a great job. He gave a brief overview of the new “0” tax rate and discussed opportunities for tax planning. I have previously posted on this topic in “It’s That Time of Year Again – Part III”, and will devote a post to the tax planning tools and opportunities Larry discussed in the near future.

Larry did point out that while the 0% rate is currently in effect for 2008 through 2010 he cannot guarantee that it will last until 2010. It is definite for 2008 and he feels it will probably continue for 2009, but expects the taxation of capital gains, including the tax rates, will be changed for 2010 and beyond, just how depending on the results of the upcoming election.

During the lunch break I had reviewed the sections in the Seminar Handbook for the three sessions I had planned to attend on Thursday – “Schedule C Hot Buttons”, “LLCs – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly”, and “Reducing Taxpayer Burden”. There didn’t seem to be much new or of value, especially considering the 50-minute constraint, certainly not enough to make it worth another schlep or to justify the additional expense of a taxi. So, as I had in past years, I decided to stay home on Thursday.

It was interesting to hear that the general consensus among the IRS speakers at the Forum is that Congress will eventually pass a bill to extend the popular expired individual and business tax breaks and provide an AMT fix for at least one more year. Let us hope that the idiots in Congress do not wait until the day after Christmas to do so!

I have attended the Forum for 4 years now - once in Chicago and three times in NYC. I have paid $99.00, $129.00, $135.00, and, this year, $149.00, which each year has included an NATP or NSTP member discount. So in just 4 years the cost has increased 50.5% without any perceivable change to the actual “product”. It is still a true bargain, considering what is available to registrants, but it is getting rather pricey for what I take away from it. I have decided that I will no longer attend future IRS Tax Forums unless I do it in conjunction with the annual NATP National Conference, as I did in Chicago in 2006.

I have posted a commentary on the NYC Forum from the perspective of a tax professional at my NJ TAX PRACTICE BLOG. Click here if you are interested.

TTFN

1 comment:

Rudy said...

Robert,

If I had been at the tax forum, my hand would have been up also.

I've found that far too many tax return preparers that only use tax software to prepare tax returns often know very little about tax issues. On the other hand, they are almost always very good data entry typists!