Monday, January 28, 2013

Once a Process Engineer, Always a Process Engineer

My husband has been a tax preparer and site coordinator for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program for several years.  VITA helps low-income taxpayers by preparing their taxes at no charge, by ensuring they get the maximum refund, and by helping them with options for saving their refunds.  Earn it – Keep it – Save it.

He asked me last fall if I would volunteer at his site and be a Greeter.  Greeter!?!  Pah!  If I’m going to volunteer for VITA, I’m going to prepare tax returns.  I took the classes this month and passed my certification tests on January 18.

My first opportunity to put my new-found skills into practice was at a “soft opening” on January 24.  In theory, a soft opening allows new tax preparers – like me – the chance to work with real clients on real returns with an experienced volunteer looking over their shoulders.  In reality – the new tax preparers showed up but only one of the experienced volunteers made it.  The nice, gentle, hand-holding session turned into baptism by fire.

I did fairly well.  I made a couple of mistakes that our quality review process discovered, fixed, and told me about, so all in all it was a good learning experience. 

My number one lesson learned:  I was all over the map preparing the returns.  All my mistakes were either mistakes of omission or mistakes of preparing forms in the wrong order.  I needed a process. 

So I did what every good former process engineer does:  I researched the tax forms and the most likely scenarios in VITA and drafted my own personal tax-preparation process.  OK, so it’s not done in Visio graphics – actually, it’s on a recipe card – but having it in front of me as I prepare taxes should help me become both more accurate and more efficient.

We were told in class that it would take three returns to “get the hang of it” and then the fourth return would “kick our butts.”  For me, it was the fifth return.  Looking back, if I had had my process in place, I could have saved her (and me) a lot of time preparing her itemized deductions and looking up why she couldn’t deduct private school tuition or HOA fees.  Itemizing didn’t help her.  Her refund was exactly the same with the standard deduction.

I expect my "tax process" to evolve and improve through experience using it.  By the end of tax season I should have a process that would make the IRS proud.

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