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Good Guys Share $175 Million Refund

April 15 hasn’t always been the national exercise in self-flagellation that it is today. Up until the 1940s, you could just waltz into your local IRS office and they would do your taxes for you. But those days have long since passed. You’re still welcome to do it yourself, if you need more stress in your life. But how will you know if you’re paying too much? Even software like TurboTax can’t guarantee you’ll get it right. If you don’t know how to use it, the program just helps you make the same expensive mistakes faster than when you made them with paper and pencils.

If you’re like most Americans, you just throw up your hands and call a pro. That begs a new question: who to call? Certified Public Accountants and Enrolled Agents have traditionally dominated the field. But up until 2010, anyone with a pencil could call himself a tax preparer. (Most of them use computers now — but, surprisingly, not all. Hey, some people still carry flip phones, too.) That seems like an obvious vacuum in today’s regulatory environment, considering that in most places, you need a license just to catch a fish. And we all know bureaucracy abhors a vacuum.

In 2009, the IRS decided to do something. After a series of public forums and comments, they launched the Registered Tax Return Preparer (RTRP) program. The new rules required preparers to: 1) sign up for a Preparer Tax Identification Number, 2) pass a 2.5 hour test, and 3) complete 15 hours of continuing education per year. Naturally, the IRS charged a fee for the program, which started at $64.25 per year. And they based their authority to do it all on an obscure 1884 law regulating representatives of civil war soldiers looking for compensation for dead horses.

Everyone was happy with the RTRP, except the people subject to the new rules (and maybe those long-dead horses). Preparers felt like they were being forced to take a test to prove they could do something they had done, in some cases, for decades. So three of them sued to shut down the program. And they won — the court agreed that the 1884 law didn’t give the IRS authority to regulate an industry that didn’t even exist when it was passed. (Oops.)

The IRS suspended the RTRP program. But they kept charging the PTIN fees, even though the program the fees were supposed to finance had ended. So, one year later, a different group of preparers filed another suit to recover those fees.

Once again, the court ruled in their favor. This June, the court decided that PTINs aren’t a “service or thing of value” justifying a fee. The IRS can’t charge fees for PTINs, “because this would be equivalent to imposing a regulatory licensing scheme and the IRS does not have such regulatory authority.” (Don’t hold your breath waiting for Congress to give it to them.) And yes, the IRS has to give back all the PTIN fees they’ve collected. That was $175 million when the plaintiffs filed their complaint; but it could be as high as $300 million now.

Chalk one up for the good guys, right? Well, sure. But here’s the real lesson: most tax preparers, credentialed or not, focus on putting the “right” numbers in the “right” boxes on the “right” forms. They do a great job of telling you how much you owe — but nothing about how to pay less. And that has everything to do with attitude, not credentials. So call us when you’re ready to save — and remember, we’re here for your family, friends, and colleagues, too!