As recalcitrant clients continue to test accountants’ patience, news from HMRC this week that more than three million people still have to file tax returns should do little to bring down self assessment stress levels before deadline day.
If you’ve never experienced self assessment season before, you could be forgiven for confusing AccountingWEB's Any Answers forum for some sort of counselling group. “Do they never stop to think, 'oh maybe I should have given the books in back in May?'” vented AccountingWEB regular Manchester Man. "Maybe the accountant is struggling in the busiest week of the year?”
The AccountingWEB reader’s frustration was typical for this time of year – Manchester Man had been chasing a stall holder client for their records since May 2018. Having had no response, the stall holder sent a text to our beleaguered accountant last week with the carefree note: “books are ready for collection.”
Now overwhelmed with work, Manchester Man has no plans for the indoor market stall client to stall his workload, and ignored the request until he was back on an even footing. Of course, gossip spread. The other stall holders, who are also clients of the reader, started whispering about the uncollected books.
Now feeling the strain, Manchester Man is batting off messages from the other stall owners defending one of their own. In a self assessment season that’s seen premature SATR £100 penalties thanks to an HMRC glitch and witchcraft-based late excuses, Manchester Man’s story epitomises the biggest bugbear: nightmare clients.
More than three million tax returns left
Nerves will surely further fray then, following news earlier this week from HMRC that more than 3.5 million tax returns still need to be filed.
But on the bright side, this means an extra 25,000 people have filed their self assessment compared to this time last year, when 3,524,798 remained. HMRC is expecting that the majority of these tardy taxpayers will heed its warning, as seen last year when more than 93% filed their returns by the deadline.
As of 22 January, HMRC has received 70% of returns (8,063,550) but that also means 3,500,813 returns are still due. And cementing the move towards the online trend, 91% of the total returns (7,359,607) have been filed online this year, compared with only 703,943 (9%) filed on paper.
Dawn of the last-minute taxpayers
The number of returns remaining suggests that many more accountants may hear a tap on their doors or the rustle of a plastic bag full of receipts. Regular commenter Bernard Michael reported one such run-in with a belligerent laggard.
When Michael broke the news that his firm only has the capacity to complete the client's return after the deadline, the phone call came to an abrupt end, but not before the terse taxpayer hurled some abuse.
Others are taking no chances. “The clients have been told to get stuffed for the past week by established firms, and they have worked their way down the list,” said Ireallyshouldknowthisbut.
“This year my website very clearly states that we are not taking on any new work for the 31st January deadlines, and we are down to about one enquiry a day from the 'always late' brigade. Last year we had four or five a day and you just didn't want to answer the phone just to tell them to go bother someone else.”
But often, like Manchester Man’s experience, the frustration comes from previously good clients who as AccountingWEB contributor Glenn Martin found “lose their minds this month”.
“One client who has e-signed his return previously now doesn't like e-signing so wanted to sign them and return [a] hard copy,” wrote Martin. “His printer broke so they had to come in collect copies, wouldn't sign them when he was here as he wanted to take them away to read through them.”
Sometimes, though, accountants can make a rod for their own back and even enable this behaviour. AccountingWEB member Ray Backler recalled: “I once visited a kitchen showroom in late January. Resting on the counter was a carrier bag full of receipts ready to go off to their accountant. The carrier bag was branded for the firm of accountants.”
Don’t stress over late clients
For this very reason, many on AccountingWEB have warned their accounting brethren against being an unorganised client’s hero in the last week of January. “We can’t be expected to carry the burden of each client’s stress as they walk in hand over their bag/envelope and walk out feeling light as a daisy whilst we feel despair at the thought of not seeing our children until February,” wrote Youngloch.
Similarly zen-like, AccountingWEB member Tax Teddy said: “So the client is late and will receive a penalty but you have already reminded him (probably several times). So as far as you're concerned it's job done and you can now put it down, relax and think about other things. No amount of you stressing about it will change the situation.”
However, AccountingWEB reader Sound advice is more forgiving and realises that these clients are beyond training so they love their clients as they are. “I now try to liken the tax season to that of a wine producer who gently tends his vines during the year and then works all hours to get the grapes in when they finally ripen.”
While many shudder at the thought of last-minute clients and enforce penalties to break their ways, these January clients are not always nightmare stories.
Like clockwork on the last working day of January for the last 12 years, AccountingWEB regular John Jenkins receives a lunchtime phone call from an IFA client with income and expenses and stays on the line while he does his tax return. At the same time, he pays Jenkins and the tax bill and thanks for the service. “I time the phone call and the most it's ever been is 11 minutes,” noted Jenkins.
Now, if only all January clients were like that.
About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.