Saturday, August 24, 2013

Updates for the coming tax year

It has been quite a while since my last post.   For those who don't know, my husband died, unexpectedly but peacefully, in his sleep in May.  He was only 59, took great care of his health, and to all outward appearances and lab tests was in radiant robust great health with the energy and vitality of a teenager until he took a nap from which he did not wake up. (Obituary and memorial blog here.)

It has been a very rough three months.  It is still not easy.  Yesterday, I went over to the beautiful brand new business school building at UAlbany, which just opened this week.  I knew Ross had been looking forward to teaching there.  It was gorgeous, full of natural light streaming in everywhere and beautifully designed to maximize energy efficiency.  I found an empty office with no name card on the door, possibly the one he would have been in if he had lived.  The door was open so I looked inside and fought back tears.

I am also only 59 and until Ross died, I also felt the energy and vitality of a teenager.  I have fleeting moments when I think I will feel that way again.   Although those moments are indeed brief as well as fleeting, there are more and more of them, and I am feeling hopeful.

One thing that really brightens my spirits is helping others, teaching others, empowering others, encouraging others.  There is a tradition of women in my family (my mother, my grandmother, my aunts) doing exactly that well into their 80s.  My mom (whose name is also Mary O'Keeffe--she is Mary Norine Gingras O'Keeffe, while I am Mary Margaret O'Keeffe) especially inspires me.  Statistically I have decades ahead of me in which to continue to make contributions to the world.

I haven't quite figured out entirely what I want to do with the rest of my one wild wonderful life, but I have found my VITA work very rewarding and I know I want to find a way to fit that into whatever I do with the rest of my life.  I also wanted to check that my brain was still working, and to make sure that it would be responsible for me to continue doing VITA work, so I decided to learn a massive additional amount of tax law and take the IRS Special Enrollment Exams, all three of them in an 8-day period.  I was a little jittery and unsure of myself, managed to lose track of where the key to my locker was at the testing facility--it turned out I had left the key in the lock, but was reassured that my brain kicked right into gear when I sat down at the terminal and started working through the little scenarios.  So I passed all the exams, and assuming that the IRS finds my criminal and tax record satisfactory (which I expect they will), I should have my official card from the Treasury Department bearing Enrolled Agent Status.  Yay!

Most of the EA test content goes way beyond VITA but it covers many areas of tax law in which I have either a personal interest and/or a professional interest for teaching/research purposes (e.g., estate and trust tax laws, corporate and partnership returns, tax treatment of passive income and various types of exotic investment instruments, the laws that relate to filing obligations for non-profit tax exempt organizations, the procedural rules for audits and appeals, etc.)

I should say that even though I passed the EA test with lots of questions on estate tax law, I certainly do not feel competent to prepare any of the more exotic types of returns I studied. For example, I would never dream of preparing the estate tax return for my late husband's estate (let alone preparing an estate tax return for anyone else!) but I feel much better equipped to ask intelligent questions and understand the documents the law firm handling the estate will ask me to sign.  In essence, I now feel I know enough to know what I don't know, and to be suitably humble.   Estate tax returns are definitely not do-it-yourself affairs for amateurs, any more than brain surgery would be!  It takes more than passing tests or taking CPE hours to get competent at something like this--I would say it takes years of practice supervised by more experienced practitioners.

So I feel very fortunate to have the local law firm I have engaged to prepare the return for Ross's estate.   They are a very experienced team, who happen to be all women--the three partners are women, all the associates are women, all the paralegals are women, and all the clerical staff are also women.  I guess that is not surprising, since they specialize in legal fields where females predominate in the profession--estates and elder law.  Since women generally outlive men, most of their clientele is female.   In any case, I feel very comfortable with them--they seem to understand and share my values.  The senior partners have decades of experience and the paralegal estate administrator working on my case also has decades of experience.  They come highly recommended by people whose judgment I trust.  They all strike me as smart and thoughtful and caring, and are making a difficult process a lot easier for me.  They are good at asking the right questions, listening thoughtfully to my answers.  They explain the process well, answer my questions, and make me feel like a valued part of a team enterprise in getting everything correct.  Everyone involved with working on the return (whether attorney or paralegal) has a PTIN and the firm has an EFIN.   They don't seem to mind at all that I have been "kicking the tires" more than probably most of their clients do.

Moving on to other matters, since my husband's death, I have decided not to continue running the consulting firm in which I worked with him.

I will continue to teach Eco 339 Public Finance and Eco 391 Income Tax: Policy and Practice (also known as "the VITA class") at Union College.

But--I have always wanted to pursue graduate study in math, so I have decided to take some part-time graduate math classes at UAlbany as well.  It is fun to go back to being a student for a while.  I am inspired by my former colleague, Judy Kugel, a dean at Harvard's Kennedy School who just retired from that job while still at her peak and decided to enroll in the mid-career Masters Program in Public Administration--at age 75, which I think is incredibly cool.

Never too old to learn!

Go us!

September 19, 2013 update:

My certificate (suitable for framing!) and wallet card arrived in the mail today.