Remembering my favorite tax man

Fred11306Every muscle cramped from sitting in the same position too long, I hit “send” and looked up from my computer. It was nearly dark. My whole Sunday afternoon was gone. Dinner would be late. But my taxes were done, filed, on their way to the government. I’d get $81 in refunds, not the thousands I had hoped for. On the good side, I didn’t have to pay, and I was fairly sure I hadn’t made any mistakes.

I don’t go to a tax professional. I was married to one. Long before I met him, Fred trained to be a licensed tax preparer to supplement his income from his full-time job with the city of San Jose. He sent his kids out to spread flyers all over the neighborhood, and his neighbors became his first clients. He had a mobile practice, taking his big black case to his clients’ homes. In those pre-computer days, he filled out the forms in pencil and sent them to a company that processed them into printed tax returns. When the returns came back, he made photocopies and delivered them to his clients with big white envelopes to mail them to the Internal Revenue Service and the State of California.

In the ‘80s, he computerized his business, but electronic filing was still in the future. Remember the post office lines on April 15?

After we moved to Oregon, Fred continued to serve his California clients, traveling south in January in his blue Mazda pickup, the back filled with boxes of client files, all on paper, along with his trusty calculator, computer, and dozens of mechanical pencils. He turned a friend’s spare bedroom into his tax office and drove around the San Jose area doing returns at kitchen and dining room tables with clients he had been serving for decades. Working with Fred was much easier than going to an impersonal tax office. Many of his clients were also friends.

I helped by answering the phone, typing in numbers, making copies, and going to the post office. During tax season, Fred worked every waking hour. It took a special person to keep at it and to deal with nervous clients as he wrote down all the numbers and came up with good, bad or horrible news. It was so easy to make a mistake, so difficult to console a client who unexpectedly had to pay a large amount to the IRS, and so frustrating when their accounting system consisted of random papers in a shoe box.

It’s too stressful for me. I could never be a professional tax preparer, although the money is good. Taxes financed some wonderful vacations for us.

Once I started dating Fred, I never had to do my own taxes. I’m better with words than numbers. Fred trained me to write down every expense, keep every receipt, organize them by categories, keep track of mileage, and be ready with the numbers when he asked for them. I got good enough at filling out Schedule C for my “sole proprietor” writing/publishing business that I shared my knowledge in magazine articles for other writers.

When Fred’s Alzheimer’s became apparent, he had to quit doing taxes. The last time he tried to do our return, he made so many errors I wound up sitting at the computer redoing it while he stood over my shoulder questioning every entry. It was a horrible afternoon. The tax man couldn’t even do his own taxes anymore. Luckily, I had learned a few things.

The year after he died (April 23, 2011, right after tax season), I went to H & R Block, but they didn’t do anything I couldn’t have done myself, and it cost me $550.

No thanks. Fred used Turbotax for some of his clients, and that’s what I use now. It guides me through each entry and checks everything for errors. As organized as I think I am, I still have to scramble for information. What did I pay for the car registration? Where did I put that donation for music scholarships? How much interest did I earn from the credit union? Why is it saying I owe money? Damned government. Eventually it all falls into place. I hit “send” and take the dog for a much-needed walk, breathing in the crisp spring air, admiring the trillium blossoms that have just popped up beside the road, and forgetting about taxes for another year.

It makes sense that the tax deadline falls during Lent. It’s a good season to suffer.

The deadline is three weeks away. Have you done your taxes yet? Do you go to a professional or do it yourself? Do you know there are volunteers at the senior centers who can help you? Are you worried about how the numbers will turn out? Let’s talk taxes in the comments.

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Walking the Bayfront in a post-tax haze

Almost all of the snow had melted at the edges of Bay Street as I walked the Bayfront yesterday in a daze. I had just come from having my taxes done. It was the first time I had ever paid someone to do my return. My late husband Fred was a licensed tax preparer and started doing mine shortly after we met. When he became incapacitated, I used Turbo Tax to do it myself.

But this year, with Fred having died and a trust, Medicaid and other issues to deal with, I decided I needed help. As it turns out, this year’s return wasn’t much different from the others. This would be our last joint return, but otherwise it was money in and money out as usual.

I was in shock for a lot of reasons. It was hard doing this without Fred, talking so much about him being dead and going over the expenses from the early months of 2011 when he was so sick. It was difficult having to enumerate all of my writing expenses, medical expenses, and charity deductions, to pull together a whole year of life that was often fogged by grief. And then I was gobsmacked to discover the preparer’s services would cost me $550. I have to pay $350 to the state of Oregon, less than I paid last year. But I am getting a refund from the federal government. Next year, as a single woman with a lower income and fewer pieces of paper, the whole process will be simpler. I think I’ll go back to doing it myself.

Doing taxes is a profitable gig. Tax money took Fred and me on many wonderful vacations to places like Portugal, Costa Rica, Canada, and Hawaii. Our trips, like our wedding, always happened after tax season. During tax season, Fred worked like a madman, rarely coming up for air. Our phone rang constantly with tax clients wanting to set up appointments, ask questions, or find out when their returns would be ready.

I have often wished I had the aptitude to prepare other people’s tax returns myself. There’s money to be made, and I like numbers, but they just don’t behave when I deal with them. I’m a words and music girl. Besides, tax returns are stressful. I used to feel the tension in Fred’s clients, just like I felt it in myself yesterday as I sat in the tax office, anxiously watching the preparer type numbers into her computer. Would I have to pay? Would they accept my deductions? Would I have all the numbers and forms I needed?

Coming out of the tax office, I gulped air and headed for the Bayfront. Despite the morning’s surprise snow shower, the sun was out. The street was fairly deserted, but I passed a family staring into the candy shop, men smoking outside the fish plant, and a young woman smoking outside the Bay Haven tavern. Glass art, kites, tee shirts and geegaws of all sorts sparkled in the gift shops. Late afternoon diners lingered over pizza and beer at Rogue Ale and shrimp melts at Local Ocean. I stood at the rail outside the Noodle Cafe and stared at the big white NOAA ships anchored across the bay. Cormorants and gulls glided by in the bright sky. I noticed an empty crab shell on the deck and wondered how it got there. Then I walked past Port Dock I restaurant, closed for storm damage repairs, to where the sea lions usually congregate on floating docks. They weren’t there. It’s winter on the Bayfront. I zipped Fred’s old jacket tight around me against the cold wind and walked from one end of the Bayfront to the other, the sun in my eyes slowly burning away the post-tax-appointment haze.

In my mind, I have already spent my refund four different ways. May your taxes turn out as well.