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Accounting Peril : Living Gets Written Off at Tax Time

April 15, 1986|DANIEL AKST | Times Staff Writer

Wayne Otchis is an easygoing guy who likes fishing and family life, but by now he has entered a state of accelerated depreciation. Starting at 4 a.m. and finishing most nights 16 hours later, Otchis has worked 90 straight days to single-handedly prepare 1,100 tax returns by the time today's filing deadline passes.

He will gross more than $165,000 for 12 weeks' work, and then, the annual rite concluded, he'll go fishing.

Accountants like Otchis work themselves into a pinstriped frenzy during the three months beginning in mid-January to meet the annual deadline for individual income tax returns. Seventy-hour weeks, marital stress and disrupted jogging schedules are endemic in a period that can yield 25%, 35% or even, in Otchis' case, 95% of a small accounting firm's income.

Test of Survival

"It's the fate of this profession," said Dwight V. Call, a Van Nuys accountant.

But tonight the ordeal is over, and accountants everywhere are rejoicing. Some will collapse in exhausted relief, others will revel at after-tax parties, and still others will go on vacation. Accountants will rejoin their families, resume running, reading and stamp collecting, and generally congratulate themselves for having survived another of the annual endurance tests that try the spirits of tax preparers.

The rigors of tax season are legend in the world of accountants, who are required both to master the Talmudic complexities of America's tax laws and withstand 12- and 14-hour days for a quarter of every year.

'Like Zombies'

Most tax preparers work overtime during tax season to finish the roughly 40 million returns they do annually, but few seem to match the intensity of the certified public accountants, who tend to do the most complicated returns. R. Michael Shaw, Western regional tax director for the Coopers & Lybrand accounting firm in Los Angeles, said that in early April his staffers "talk in unintelligible sentences, and they walk around like zombies."

Murray Saylor, tax director for the Atlanta office of the Touche Ross accounting firm, was so busy that by Friday he still hadn't done his own taxes. "I'm still looking for deductions," he said.

Accountants describe the experience as one of total immersion.

"There is no other life except working and sleeping," lamented Gary Iskowitz, a former Internal Revenue Service regional audit chief now in private practice in Century City.

Abe Goldstein, a 62-year-old Chicago CPA, takes Saturdays off for religious reasons but goes to work at nightfall and stays until 2 a.m. to make up for it. Besides struggling with the IRS, he struggles with fat: Goldstein says tax season is the only time of year he fails to swim a mile every day.

Practitioners like Otchis, who walks around the block twice a day to preserve his sanity, are extreme cases. They live and breathe taxes now so they can goof off the rest of the year.

"If you asked me if Eisenhower was still President, I couldn't tell you," said Otchis, who practices in Reseda. "It's tax-season tunnel vision."

Afterward, Otchis takes it easy, with long vacations and 20-hour work weeks, most of it unprofitably spent answering clients' questions and pursuing unpaid bills.

Later this month, he'll join fellow CPA Steven Honeyman for the opening of trout season in the Sierra Nevada. Honeyman, who practices in Santa Monica, works only two days a week most of the year, but he pursues a tax-season regimen of 16-hour days, seven days a week, until deadline.

Honeyman and Otchis aren't the only practitioners who head for the hills. April 15 triggers an exodus of accountants away from the major cities and into the countryside. In Los Angeles, it marks the beginning of a desert trek sending flocks of accountants to Palm Springs.

Maybe Too Much Work

Critics, including some CPAs, say accountants work too much during tax season. Christopher Bourlier, the western San Gabriel Valley district manager for H & R Block, the nation's largest tax preparer, generally won't let his employees work seven days in a row before the last week of the season. Without time off, he says, their work suffers.

"The mind can only absorb what the bottom can stand," he said.

A few accountants, like New York CPA Richard Stevens, actually seem to enjoy the tax time marathon. "He loves it!" said Helen Weiss, his secretary. "He thrives on it!"

Some say it is a little easier for veterans.

"I'm 43," said Melvin Crosby, a Hollywood CPA who claims to work 100 hours a week. "I'm really in my prime now. When I was 22 it was worse."

Weiss, meanwhile, said she can't wait for midnight, and most accountants seem to feel the same way.

Can Be Stressful

"It's a very stressful time for a family," said Marilyn Ruman, an Encino psychologist who advises accountants and other professionals on stress management. "People in relationships for long periods of time get accustomed, but in new relationships, it's sometimes very difficult."

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