Horror stories: Accountants recall self assessment nightmares
Coalesco’s Linda Frier, Mazuma’s Lucy Cohen, AccountingWEB member Watson Associates and Accountancy Office’s Sarah Sallis reflect on their worst self assessment seasons.
Any accountant who has endured the onslaught of self assessment season has that one year that stands out in their personal hall of infamy. Yes, the stress of a mountain of tax returns is not enough; sometimes the self assessment gods just want to inflict more pain.
Just by its very nature January 31st -- self assessment deadline day-- is fraught with tension. Many accountants can recall memories of burning the midnight candle, feverously looking at the office clock, with each ‘tick-tock’ spelling one less second to file a tax return.
But when that knock on the office door comes midway through deadline day, or you hear the stomach-churning rustle of a plastic bag, you know something is likely to go awry.
For some, these memories are better left unsaid. It’s been consigned to a hidden corner of their mind and never to be spoken of again. But the four accountants featured in this article are bravely reliving their self assessment nightmares so others can learn from them (or just feel a little bit better at this stressful time of year).
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Linda Frier, founder and owner of Coalesco accountants
"She just promptly burst into tears with this newborn baby and said: 'That's more than our house cost.'"
The worst self assessment season I ever had was a heart-rending moment.
The SA tax deadline was Thursday and the Saturday before we had an enquiry from a new client. It came through as a really simple email: a lady said her husband was a subcontractor and he needed to complete his self assessment tax return.
She had all his papers in order but had a problem with a previous accountant and he wasn't able to complete a tax return. I quoted on the basis of him being a subcontractor and got quite a cold email back. She replied: "Oh yes, we'd like to go ahead with that". Maybe it was because it was my third year but I was quite naive.
She arrived with her paperwork all duly intact. What transpired was that his business had increased its sales eightfold from the previous year. He came in on Monday and on Tuesday their first daughter was born. And on Thursday (SA deadline day) the lady, the newborn and the taxpayer walked back through the office door and I was sitting there talking about how wonderful this business had been. He explained that he'd won this significant contract and had travelled the UK undertaking this work; it all had been all very fantastic.
I then presented him with a £32,000 tax bill. He had no comprehension of how much money he had earned, and therefore had no idea of how much he should have saved. He'd become a significant taxpayer. He had no CIS because of the type of working he was doing. He was used to receiving refunds.
She just promptly burst into tears with this newborn baby and said: "That's more than our house cost." I'll never forget those words as I passed the tissues and tried not to sob myself. That was the worst horror story of taking on somebody at the very last minute and it's stuck with me forever.
It's something in practice you get used to: passing out tissues, divorce, bereavement, all sorts. I am often told I should start charging for my counselling hours and am very wary about last-minute clients now.
You can read more from Linda Frier in this Practice Talk interview.
Lucy Cohen, co-founder and commercial director of Mazuma Accountants
"...surge pricing means we’re covering the cost of any overtime or relief staff who have to come in if people get ill again."
Last year we learnt some hard lessons. Last January was one of the toughest we had in the last 12 years. By a complete fluke series of events, we had a lot of regular clients who decided for some reason to send all their work in much later than they usually do. We had an unprecedented amount of staff sickness. In a team of 26 people, we had nine people off one day.
I asked a Pharmacist friend if "this sickness is a thing this year?" And he said: “Yeah, everyone is just really ill this year.” Whilst that made me feel that it wasn’t just us, it didn’t help the matter.
So this year we looked at how we deal with this, and we’ve decided to introduce surge pricing for any client that gets their work into us after 31 October. Hopefully, we’ll get 95% of current clients filed by the end of October, which gives us that leeway. The surge pricing also means we’re covering the cost of any overtime or relief staff who have to come in if people get ill again.
Instead of having two targets and two points like July and October, we're setting more incremental targets for our teams. This year we’ve broken the tax return percentage targets we'd like to hit down into months. The opportunity there is from the month of October through to January, we’ve got the capacity to take on more new clients which in marketing terms, January is a good time for self assessment products.
This extract is from a podcast Lucy recorded with AccountingWEB last year. You can listen to the full podcast on risk management by clicking the play button above.
Watson Associates, AccountingWEB member
"...as a result, our telephone and internet disappeared!”
You know your self assessment deadline day isn’t getting off to the best of starts when the paint fumes coming from the decorating in the downstairs office are causing headaches. But this Any Answers post from last year goes to show that sometimes when you think things couldn’t get any worse, invariably they do.
“Picture the scene: our landlord (council) brought in painters downstairs to refurbish the previous tenant's kitchen and reception area. The fumes from the paint have been giving us headaches for a week - bad enough,” wrote the member.
But at 2.05pm on January 31, with three members of staff frantically working on the remaining outstanding accounts and tax returns, something happened that made the member almost forget about the paint fumes.
“The painter and his mate decide to remove (meaning cut any visible cables) the equipment in the previous tenant's server room and as a result, our telephone and internet disappeared!” revealed the member.
What had transpired was the telephone lines had been cut. The AccountingWEB member managed to get BT to divert calls to his mobile, but frantic conversations with their landlord were not as fruitful.
“We politely (that may be slightly inaccurate) pointed out that there were £3,100 of penalties at risk (yes, we actually totalled them) for which we will hold them responsible,” continued the member.
“After two hours of getting nowhere and plans afoot for taking computers home, a bright spark from the council IT department obtained a dongle for us and therefore the internet became available.”
All's well that ends well. But by the point that everything came back online and the tax return filing resumed, the time had gone 8pm. The AccountingWEB member appropriately signed off: “And I thought I knew what stress was!”
Sarah Sallis, founder and owner of The Accountancy Office
"He literally wheeled in a suitcase full of paper receipts"
When I first started nine or eight years ago I was in the early stages of the firm. Naturally, you need the business, you'll happily onboard anyone who comes your way.
If somebody came to us 25 Jan just realising they need to submit their SA tax return, you help.
Early on, there was one particular client I remember above all others. He literally wheeled in a suitcase full of paper receipts, documents, invoices, HMRC correspondence etc. which hadn't been opened. That was a bit of a horror show, but we stayed late and pulled it off.
Even now, if a new client came to me 25 January saying "can you help" we'd do our best. If we can provide the service they're looking for and they're a good fit, we'd do our utmost to make sure we get that tax return done for them.
You can read more from Sarah Sallis in this Practice Talk interview.
We’re sure AccountingWEB members can rival these self assessment horror stories. Perhaps your office had a break-in on January 31st? Or maybe you were struck with a severe bout of winter flu, which incapacitated the whole team.