By Elisabeth Felten, CPA
Getting to know your clients and working with them over the years is one of the great joys of being a CPA. In my practice, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing clients get married, buy their first home, have children, and prepare for retirement. It’s gratifying to celebrate important milestones with them, and it’s especially touching when their children contact me independently ready to take their first steps into financial adulthood.
While my education in debits and credits, tax law, and accounting principles readied me for the profession, my studies did not prepare me for the death of a client. The first time it happened, I was shocked. But even as I started to process the loss, I still did not realize that I would encounter this many times over. Clients become part of an extended family, and each subsequent passing has been equally hard.
What’s more difficult than coping with my own feelings of loss, however, is talking about important tax matters with family members still raw with emotion. My accounting education did not cover how to balance the needs of a grieving family with approaching tax deadlines or the negative tax implications a family death may cause. For example, a tax discount is available on Pennsylvania estate tax returns if the estimated tax is paid within three months of the taxpayer’s death. Family members are still adjusting to life without their loved one and, in many cases, are not ready to go through their financial affairs so soon. In cases where a client dies toward the end of the year, the spouse may need to change federal tax withholdings to reflect a new filing status they aren’t ready to face. My call may be the one that turns an otherwise good day in the grief process into a difficult one. Even worse is explaining to grieving parents that there is an increase in tax liability due to the loss of a child tax credit – a message that feels too cruel to deliver.
Then there is the final return. The finality of entering the date of death into my tax software hits hard, and I have yet to do it without a wave of sadness. Sometimes the sadness takes me by surprise even though it had been many months since I’ve reviewed a deceased client’s file. Seeing a printed return with the word “deceased” in the header always gives me pause. I make a note to alert family members that the tax return will state the date of death. If seeing the word “deceased” gives me a start, I can only imagine the emotions it will evoke in the decedent’s family.
The COVID-19 pandemic compounded the feelings of loss. Many of us have had to deal with more client deaths over the past 18 months than ever before, and we were prevented from attending their funerals and paying our respects to their loved ones. They trusted us with their most private information, and it just felt wrong not to be able to say goodbye.
In an era of increasing automation and outsourcing, it is during these times that we see the true importance of personal contact. As trusted advisers, we are a source of comfort for those who go on. When a grieving parent, partner, or spouse is bombarded with questions and forms to complete, they look to their CPA for guidance through unfamiliar territory.
In a great deal of accounting work, it’s easy to go through the motions: ticking, tying, and complying. However, at the height of tax season when we are deep in processing mode, it’s important to consider the emotional effect tax laws and forms can have on our clients.
Only in passing do we share conversations about the psychological aspects of our profession. We rarely discuss the emotional intelligence required to be a successful practitioner. It would benefit our profession to have these conversations more often.
Elisabeth Felten, CPA, is assistant professor of business for DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa. In addition to teaching, she leads training sessions on diversity, equity, and inclusion. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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