The Accountant’s Tool Kit for Helping the Disorganized Client

This article, the disorganized tax client, was previously published at the Greater Washington Society of CPA’s

The disorganized tax client can try the accountant’s patience; yet, these clients can be helped. Moreover, over time, they can be transformed into financially responsible, exceptionally, loyal, clients. These clients can be frustrating, especially for accountants who are often highly organized and responsible themselves. Understanding what motivates the disorganized client is a requisite to helping them change. Clients engage in this self-destructive behavior for a myriad of reasons. These reasons can be understood and this understanding can inform the design of an effective plan aimed at helping them to become more organized and, ultimately, more financially responsible.

Understanding the meaning of “tax-avoidance”

All symptoms, no matter how seemingly maladaptive, serve an “adaptive” purpose. That is, they are in some way beneficial or advantageous to the individual. The symptom, “disorganized tax related behavior”, is both maladaptive and adaptive. Its’ maladaptive features are readily evident. The behavior of the disorganized tax client undermines the accountant’s efficacy. It interferes with financial planning and financial growth, making it harder to identify and pursue both financial and life goals.

Its adaptive features are more obscure, even to the clients themselves. These clients can’t explain the “real” reasons for their dilatory behavior because the reasons are outside of their conscious awareness. In fact, if they were aware of what motivated this behavior, they could probably change it. The symptom, “avoiding taxes” signals that the client has an underlying conflict.

How can this disorganized behavior be understood?

Disorganization around money signals the presence of underlying conflicts. The disorganized client may have one or several of these 7 conflicts:

1. Measuring oneself by ones’ income.

The disorganized tax client MAY equate their value as a human being with their net worth. A trip to the accountant entails more than compiling tax documents. Rather, for these clients, it is more like a trip to an appraiser – an appraiser of their self-worth. Their financial status is a source of humiliation and shame. Still worse, they may harbor the apprehension that the accountant will judge them as harshly as they judge themselves. No wonder they procrastinate. Avoiding the accountant is in a sense, “adaptive”, in that it allows the individual to avoid humiliation, shame and an assault on their self-esteem.

2. The disorganized tax client may experience himself as not living up to the expectations of an authority figure.

People tend to expect and, often recreate, their early experiences in their current life. For example, the individual whose parents were helpful and supportive tends to anticipate that subsequent authority figures will behave in a similar fashion. Conversely, the individual whose parents were critical and punitive tends to anticipate, and sometimes elicit, a similar sort of treatment in later life.

The disorganized tax client who views herself as a financial failure may anticipate that the accountant will respond in the same punitive way as her parents. In fact, by being late and inconveniencing the accountant, the client may be, unconsciously, recapitulating this scenario. Accountants should suspect that this sort of process is occurring when they find themselves unwittingly drawn into, an uncharacteristic, critical, parental role. For example, when they find themselves sparring with the client. This behavior is “adaptive” in that it serves as a distraction allowing the client to avoid growing up and taking responsibility for her own finances.

3. Envying of the accountant.

Some disorganized tax clients may, unconsciously, envy their accountant who they imagine has their financial life in order. At an unconscious level, the accountant may represent a parent or an overly responsible sibling. Being late with taxes, thereby making the accountant’s job more difficult, may be a way of retaliating against or undermining the parent or the sibling. This sort of behavior often culminates in making the accountant feel as inadequate and incompetent as the client feels. Thus, it serves an “adaptive” (albeit, dysfunctional) purpose.

4. Wanting the accountant to take care of them.

Adult functioning entails earning money, paying taxes and financial planning. For some clients, something interfered with the process of assuming adult responsibilities. They were never allowed to be children, or they were overindulged and not helped to grow up. Consequently, they may feel quite inept. They abdicate the financial aspects of adult functioning: bookkeeping, organization, and related tasks, to the accountant.. Dilatory behavior elicits the accountant’s reminders and, at times, even parental-like “nagging”. This behavior serves the “adaptive” function of getting the accountant to take care of the client, not as an accountant, but rather as a parent.

5. A sense of entitlement.

These clients feel that they should not have to pay taxes — that the world “owes them a living”. They were either under or overindulged as children. When they learn they must pay more than they wished, they resent the bearer of “bad news”, the CPA. In fact, in these situations, the CPA is at risk for not being paid. Avoiding taxes and/or accountant’s fees is “adaptive” in that it allows the client to avoid recognizing that their sense of entitlement is inappropriate. Moreover, it allows them to avoid facing the painful reasons underlying their inappropriate sense of entitlement.

6. Not having the money to pay taxes.

Avoiding your accountant when you can’t afford to pay your taxes is a form of denial. It is “adaptive” in that it allows the individual to avoid a painful and frightening reality. Of course, it is maladaptive in that accountants can provide helpful guidance in this situation.

7. Marital or family troubles.

Avoiding taxes can be an “adaptive” way of dealing with a family conflict. The individual who experiences their spouse as over-controlling or depriving can retaliate by not preparing tax materials. This sort of behavior is commonplace among divorcing couples. Also, families with a mentally ill, substance abusing or impaired child or family member may defer financial consultation as a way of avoiding painful decisions. In a sense this sort of avoidance is “adaptive”. It allows the family to avoid the acute pain of marital discord or family decisions, however, avoidance comes at a great cost. These clients can be helped to manage their finances, to pay their taxes and to establish and achieve financial goals.

Chronic difficulty managing money may be indicative of an underlying conflict, however, providing psychotherapy is beyond the scope of the accountant’s role. How can the accountant help these clients? The accountant’s task is to work around the conflict to promote healthy, financial functioning. Successful financial functioning may, in effect, prompt the client to become aware of his conflicts and to confront them in another venue. The accountant can take several steps to encourage this.

1. Articulate ground rules and mutual expectations. Describe how the client will benefit.

Articulate ground rules, explicitly, both verbally and in writing. It can be helpful to tell the client that you are committed to helping them to: make their taxes worry-free, identify their financial goals and to achieve them. Note that your goal is to help them to be in complete control of their taxes and their finances. Try to clarify the obstacles which stand in the way of effective, financial functioning? You might ask:

  • Do you have financial goals?
  • If so, what are these goals?
  • Are you achieving your financial goals?
  • If not, what obstacles do you face?
  • What is your history in working with accountants?
  • Do you complete materials in a timely fashion or is it difficult for you?
  • Can you agree on and honor deadlines or would you like some help with that?
  • Where and when do you get “stuck”?
  • Is it difficult for you to organize receipts?
  • Is it difficult for you to do bookkeeping?
  • What stands in your way?

It can be helpful to explain that you have a plethora of helpful resources available including, bookkeepers, personal organizers, financial planners, psychologists, attorneys and others. These individuals are experienced in helping people to get their financial lives “on track”.

2. Create a realistic plan with the client and provide linkages to helpful resources.

The key here is to respect the client’s limitations. Like the obesity patient who promises to stop eating forbidden foods, many clients will resolve to do better with their taxes. Yet, past behavior is the best predictor of present behavior. If, historically, a client has failed to complete materials on time, than, it is important to help the client to take steps to make this time different.

For this reason, it is very important to know about the kinds of things that get in the client’s way. A client who was late with last year’s tax information may require quarterly meetings. The disorganized client may benefit from a referral to a personal organizer and/or a bookkeeper.

Financial difficulties signal an underlying conflict. Thus, many of these clients may warrant psychological treatment. Certainly, a referral to a psychologist should be considered for those struggling with: marital conflicts, difficulty establishing financial independence from a parent or spouse, fear of success, anxiety about setting and pursuing life goals and/or major disorganization.

The key here is not to rely on the client’s assurances that they can do better next time. Most people consciously want to have their financial lives in order. If they are not successful, it is because they are at the mercy of dynamics that are operating outside of their awareness. Consequently, just “trying” will not effective. Rather, they need to be linked to helpful resources.

3. Establish good working relationships with referral sources.

In making referrals, it is important to talk with these professionals about how you think that they might be helpful to your clients. Get to know them and the way in which they work. Help them to understand how you work with your clients. In this way, you can ensure an effective collaboration.

4. Make strategic referrals.

A client who seeks help in tax preparation isn’t anticipating a referral to a personal organizer or a psychotherapist

Consequently, if you feel that these types of referrals are warranted, than, it is important to proceed with care. When you provide an overview of your practice, it can be helpful to mention, matter-of-factly, that you make use of these adjuvant resources. In this way, should a referral be warranted, you have already begun to normalize the recommendation.Your referral sources can help you find appropriate ways to make referrals. Explain why you think a referral is appropriate. Seek their advice as to how to make this sort of recommendation to a client. It is important to recognize that clients will not always follow your advice, immediately, particularly when they find it threatening. However, if you plant the seed, they may follow-up when their efforts to change fail.

5. Take steps to ensure that you are paid.

Working with these kinds of clients is demanding. You need to ensure that you are paid. This is as vital for the client’s financial/emotional health as it is for yours. A client’s financial disorganization is “adaptive” in that it “solves” a problem. But, it comes at a great psychological/financial cost. It allows the individual to avoid reality. Allowing this sort of client to default on fees serves to solidify the self-destructive, child-like, pattern. At the outset, it can be helpful to make sure that your payment policies are straightforward and clear. In doing so, you serve as a role model, demonstrating healthy, financial functioning. Moreover, you ensure that you will not feel resentful. This allows you to continue to remain available to these difficult clients.

6. Examine your own feelings about being paid

If you have a number of clients who are late with their taxes and/or who fail to pay in a timely fashion, it may helpful to examine your feelings about getting paid. As with clients, this issue can be complex. It is important to note that not seeking payment for services rendered is a “symptom”, too. And, if you engage in this sort of pattern, you need to ask yourself, “what adaptive function does it serve?”. Are you, by virtue of your upbringing, attempting to take care of others, are you conflicted about your value or the value of your services? These are all factors to consider.

What if you’ve tried all of these suggestions and your client is still disorganized?

Most clients want to grow in their ability to take care of themselves and to be fiscally responsible but they are unsure how to do so. They may be frightened of this kind of adult functioning. If your client hasn’t been responsive, consider meeting with them once tax season is over. Ask what has gotten in the way of a smoother process. Together implement a plan to make next year different. These clients can be challenging individuals with whom to work. But, success can be extremely gratifying — both for you and the client. And, a transformed client, is a loyal client and a client for life.

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