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Tax pros hold line on fees for pandemic services

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Surcharges related to the expenses of doing business in the pandemic — cleaning, training, personal protective equipment — are starting to appear in businesses such as dentists’ offices and restaurants. Have tax professionals and accountants begun charging more for special accommodations such as in-person meetings or special services such as Paycheck Protection Program loan forgiveness consultation?

Though they’ve certainly shifted how they meet with clients, so far, practitioners say mostly no.

Bruce Primeau, a CPA and president at Summit Wealth Advocates, in Prior Lake, Minnesota, said that his firm isn’t charging for the “handful” of face-to-face meetings over the last months: “I asked the person responsible for setting client meetings to ask each advisor individually first whether they’re comfortable meeting with anyone face to face. Only if they say yes do we offer the option to a client.”

“We had a package (flat fee) that was for consulting on the various programs available and possible impact to cash flow,” said Chris Hardy, an Enrolled Agent and managing director at Georgia-based Paramount Tax and Accounting. “For those who didn’t want to pay for the full package, we did charge hourly for consulting services.”

“I haven’t had in-person meetings after March 15,” said Brian Stoner, a CPA in Burbank, California. “All done by phone, email or Zoom. This is part of my free services this year. I’ve also helped clients with their estimated PPP loan calculation when they applied and also told them what the numbers were for the forgiveness calculation. I never filled out any of the forms, just giving them information to fill out themselves. I haven’t charged for this service this year.”

PPP work

Historically, preparers surveyed tended to raise their tax prep fees about 5 percent a year, with higher increases coming in the wake of tax law changes or the retooling of forms.

But history has little precedent for the pandemic-related programs that created more than an extra-long season for preparers. They also created new work, such as helping business clients secure the PPP loans — and what is likely for many struggling companies to be the all-important loan forgiveness afterward.

“This is a new experience for CPAs,” said Scott Kadrlik, managing partner at Meuwissen, Flygare, Kadrlik & Associates, in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. “Our clients deal with their banks for loan funding and we help provide the information for programs that have been around for a long time. The PPP is new with little guidance from the SBA and the banks know as little as we do about the programs.”

“We have not charged our clients for time spent on PPP issues unless there was significant information and time spent on the process. Mainly our time was spent answering questions and interpreting SBA information,” he added.

“We will certainly charge for PPP loan forgiveness consultation because a successful loan forgiveness application can save the borrower a lot of money,” said Lawrence Pon, a CPA at Pon & Associates in Redwood City, California. “We can help them with this workload.”

“This is similar to a taxpayer representing themselves in an audit versus hiring a tax professional. I’ll certainly be charging this based on my hourly rate,” he added. “We can’t charge based upon the results of the loan forgiveness.”

EA Debra James at Genesis Accounting & Management Services, in Lorain, Ohio, said her firm helped many clients with the PPP loan application process — assembling documentation such as payroll returns, income statements, business schedules and business returns — and in some cases completed the application for the client and spoke to the lenders to answer additional questions.

“Much of this was done without client meetings, and there was no additional charge if a meeting was required,” James said, adding that fees ranged from $150 to $250 “depending on the degree of involvement needed.”

“As yet,” James added recently, “no services have been provided for loan forgiveness applications … When services are requested, time will be billable comparable to the original application fees.”

“I bill hourly. If I do additional work for clients that involves more than a quick response, I bill for it,” said Phyllis Jo Kubey, an EA in New York.

Meetings and obligations

Some firms have a jump on professional social distancing via technology, but basic swapping of information remains different these days. “I work out of my home and I’ve worked with almost all of my clients virtually for many years,” said Kubey, who lives in a doorman building. “Clients can drop off hard-copy documents when they wish and I can leave documents for them to pick up without direct contact. For the few clients who needed an in-person meeting, we met outside, masked.”

California’s Pon said his firm doesn’t charge for special accommodations. In-person meetings in his area stopped in March. “Many clients were very upset when that happened,” he added. “For the upcoming season, we have no plans for in-person appointments.”

“After the 2019 filing season I realized how much of my time was being consumed by client meetings. I added client meeting and a specific charge to each invoice sent out in 2019,” said Mary Kay Foss, a CPA in Walnut Creek, California. Foss said she did close her office and that her whole building was shut down.

“For some clients, I’d meet them at the door of the building to retrieve their hand-delivered packets,” she said. “Our county shut down on March 17 and there were only a handful of in-person meetings before that. Those meetings were included in the 2019 preparation invoice.”

Perhaps one reason preparers haven’t followed dentists and restaurants is a sense of continuity with clients. “Our goal during this time is to help our clients maximize revenue, watch expenses and do everything they can to stay in business,” Kadrlik said. “They never forget who helped them through this uncertain time.”

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Paycheck Protection Program CARES Act Coronavirus