CPA tax preparers can count themselves as part of a specialty with a background that reflects many of the struggles and victories that have left indelible impressions on their profession and the country at large. With a history replete with class struggles, competitive challenges, technological advancement, and legislative triumphs and setbacks, tax practitioners have forged a path of achievement and innovation that has made their specialty among the most vibrant in the accounting profession.
Rarely is genuine longevity achieved without its fair share of new directions and obstacles to success—both the expected and unexpected—and it has never been truer than for pioneering tax practitioners. When taking a look back at the specialty’s early roots, a vivid picture emerges of the circumstances that have brought tax services to the prominent position they hold today.
TWO LEGISLATIVE MILESTONES AND THEIR IMPACT
Most major U.S. tax-law changes occur during times of national crisis, and that was as true in the early days of our country, when the federal government relied on revenue-producing excise taxes and tariffs, as it is today. For instance, one of the first federal income tax laws was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Its purpose was to help finance the Civil War and, similar to most income tax laws of the day, it was repealed several years later, after the war crisis had passed.
The Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894 imposed a 2% income tax to fund reductions in tariff rates; however, the U.S. Supreme Court held that tax to be unconstitutional because it violated the prohibition against unapportioned direct taxes under Article 1, Section 9, of the U.S. Constitution. The modern individual income tax law was enacted in 1913 after ratification of the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution overcame the legal challenges to unapportioned direct taxes. It was a period when tariffs were imposing a heavier and, to many, unfair burden on the lower classes, who were predominantly agriculturally based and living in the country’s Southern and Western regions. The Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act, which enacted the new income tax, also lowered tariff rates. The new income tax law was meant to bring about a fairer distribution of taxes across wealth levels and geographical regions.
The Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act came four years after Congress, under the guise of a constitutional excise or “indirect” tax, passed the Corporate Income Tax Act of 1909, the country’s first corporate income tax law and the origin of today’s corporate income tax. The milestone 1909 law provided CPAs with an early foothold in the tax-preparation specialty. A predecessor organization of the AICPA, the American Association of Public Accountants (AAPA), launched a campaign to object to the law’s requirement that companies use a cash-based, calendar-year system, although the law permitted a deduction for depreciation and depletion. In an attempt to avoid some of the controversy surrounding the 1909 Act, legislators paid close attention to comments and recommendations from the AAPA and members of the accounting profession and made allowances for the accrual method and fiscal year in the 1913 law. The basic structure of the corporate and individual income tax was now firmly in place and has since remained intact.
CPAs immediately saw the potential in this new market and began to share their thoughts and expertise. For example, Lybrand, Ross Bros. & Montgomery, a predecessor of PricewaterhouseCoopers, published a 60-page manual in 1913 titled, Income Tax Guide: An Analysis of the Obligations Imposed on Individuals, Firms and Corporations by the Federal Income Tax Law. The same year, John B. Niven of Touche, Niven & Co. (now Deloitte) began writing the first regular tax column for the JofA. Niven would become president of the American Institute of Accountants (AIA), formerly known as the AAPA. In 1917, Robert Montgomery, another member of Lybrand, Ross Bros. & Montgomery and also a future AIA president, published one of the earliest tax services for CPAs. During the same period, an interesting change was taking place, one that is perhaps startling to today’s taxpayers. The prevailing sentiment among society was that being required to pay income taxes was something of a status symbol for the wealthy.
CLASS TAX VS. MASS TAX
Wars, as they are wont to do, made a big impact on taxes in the first half of the 20th century. The need to pay for World War I led to higher tax rates and an excess profits tax. World War II was more transformative, heralding widespread changes to tax law and the CPA’s role. When tax revenues failed to adequately finance the war effort, President Franklin Roosevelt pushed through the Revenue Act of 1942, which increased individual and corporate income tax rates. The Current Tax Payment Act, passed in 1943, enacted the first requirement that employers withhold taxes from their employees’ wages and remit them to the government.
These tax law changes shifted the income tax from a class tax to a mass tax in that approximately 75% of American workers now had to pay income taxes. Before the war, in 1939, only about 5% of workers paid income tax. That was up from 2% in 1913. By the end of World War II in 1945, approximately 90% of American workers submitted income tax returns.
As the 1940s wound down, tax had firmly entrenched itself into the CPA’s suite of services. It was also a time when a respected CPA from New York became the most famous tax accountant in the United States. J.K. Lasser had, in 1939, published the first widely sold tax guide for taxpayers who prepared their own returns. With the transformation of the income tax into a mass tax, Americans bought millions of copies of Lasser’s guide during the second half of the 1940s. The guide continues to be published to this day.
FROM CONFLICT TO COLLABORATION
After the Revenue Act of 1942, tax services’ higher profile captured greater attention from CPAs, clients, prospective clients and, for the first time in many cases, attorneys. Since the initial tax legislation of 1909 and 1913, CPAs had clearly outnumbered attorneys in the income tax preparation specialty. However, more than three decades later, millions of American workers and businesses now needed guidance on filing tax returns, interpreting complex tax laws, and responding to tax-related cases before the courts. Attorneys, recognizing a potential revenue opportunity, asserted that CPAs not only did not have the right to offer tax-preparation services but that doing so constituted the unlicensed practice of law.
The controversy, which lasted for more than 20 years, sparked intense debate by the AICPA and the American Bar Association (ABA) and among members of both professions. It also involved the Treasury Department and U.S. court system. However, while both professions were seeking common ground, their members were allowed to continue offering the same range of tax-preparation services.
In 1951, the AIA and the ABA joined in a Statement of Principles that defined proper areas of federal tax practice for members of both professions. A U.S. Supreme Court case in 1963 and a law change in 1965 settled the dispute by establishing that any person who is qualified to practice as a CPA may represent clients before the IRS or Treasury.
Among the many positive changes following the controversy is the striking progress that has been made in the relationship between CPAs and attorneys.
“As a CPA and an attorney who often works with members of both professions, my personal philosophy is that we can learn immensely from one another and make our own unique contributions, which is also an invaluable differentiator in an age of increasing specialization,” said Leonard Weiner, Esq., CPA, and partner at the Houston law firm Weiner & McCulloch PLLC. “The client benefits from the combined contributions of two skilled specialists, and the CPA and attorney have the opportunity to demonstrate expertise areas that may have otherwise gone unnoticed by the client.”
TAX AND TECHNOLOGY
No discussion of the milestones for CPA tax preparers would be complete without addressing tax software’s key role. Tax specialists took their first significant step into the technology era in the early 1960s and since then have continued to achieve new levels of speed, efficiency, information sharing, and collaboration with employees and clients alike.
In the 1960s and 1970s, tax-preparation software was not particularly sophisticated or widely distributed. Most CPAs sent their clients’ information on data entry forms to service centers for processing. It was not until the 1980s that smaller firms acquired their own software. “Tax-preparation software for CPAs closely followed the introduction, timeline, and advancement of the desktop personal computer for business use in America,” said Bob Dias, vice president, Product Management, Tax, for accounting software-maker CCH. “During this time, CPA firms were offered the then-advanced capability to remotely access and edit their tax-return data housed at data centers.”
In the late 1980s, CPAs began installing tax-preparation software directly onto their desktop computers. “The software was installed using a large number of floppy disks that were purchased directly from the software company,” Dias said. “In essence, the tax-preparation engine was housed locally on these desktops and could print the tax return locally using in-office printers.”
The next decade witnessed tremendous software advancements as online capabilities, as well as laser and other in-house printing functions, found a home in tax offices around the country. Progress gained even stronger momentum as the internet’s influence grew and brought technology in the profession to the lofty position it holds today.
Over the century-long history of CPA tax practitioners, their reputation, standing, and role have been molded by their commitment to being an advocate for the client. This advocacy role contrasts with that of the auditor, who must remain independent. Among the many factors contributing to this heightened trust and perception are the advances CPAs have made in broadening their role as advisers.
CPA tax practitioners have long held their focus on this role and its service-expansion opportunities, as shown by the following excerpt from an editorial in the December 1913 issue of the JofA: “The income-tax law is bound to result in the engagement of accountants by many corporations and individuals who have not in the past availed themselves of such services. And even though such engagements may in the first instance be limited to purely income-tax questions, they will undoubtedly lead in many cases to a realization by the clients of the wider usefulness of the work of accountants and so to more extensive instructions.”
The editorial proved prophetic. Clients’ needs for tax services have provided expanded opportunities for CPAs to offer tax planning and compliance services. CPAs have offered tax services since the origin of the income tax and have responded to the nearly constant changes in the law and in technology to consistently provide quality client care.
“As the number of tax preparers rises and tax software packages continue to diversify and grow, the need for CPAs to distinguish themselves in the marketplace is stronger today than ever before,” said Sidney Kess, Esq., CPA, of counsel to Kostelanetz & Fink LLP. “By offering tax planning services that demonstrate unique knowledge, skills, and insights, CPAs can not only compete more effectively in the marketplace, but they can also further build on their reputation as an invaluable business adviser to their clients.”
A CONTINUING LEGACY
Tax practitioners can be certain that tax laws and client needs will constantly change. They can also expect the evolution of technology and the resulting progress to continue to affect their tools and processes. However, two circumstances that are unlikely to change, regardless of the political and economic climate, are that tax compliance and tax planning will remain core client services and that CPAs will remain the acknowledged professionals who are trusted most to provide those services.
Did You Know?
- The first Form 1040, including instructions, was four pages. The number 1040 was merely the next number in the sequential order of forms.
- The first Form 1040 was due to be filed by March 1, 1914. No money was sent with the return. Each return was verified by a field agent who sent out bills on June 1 with payment due by June 30. The filing date was changed to March 15 by the Revenue Act of 1918. April 15 became the filing deadline in 1955.
- CPAs were first officially recognized by the federal government as a class of professionals when the Revenue Act of 1924 was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge.
- Payroll deductions for the withholding of income taxes became mandatory in 1943.
- T. Coleman Andrews of Virginia was the first CPA to serve as IRS commissioner. He also was a former president of the American Institute of Accountants, a predecessor of the AICPA. Andrews was appointed IRS commissioner in 1953 to reorganize the agency. Among his first acts was to change the name from Bureau of Internal Revenue to the Internal Revenue Service. After leaving the IRS, Andrews ran for president of the United States with a platform to abolish the income tax.
- Until the late 1970s, women in the profession were encouraged to pursue careers in tax rather than audit to avoid the appearance of impropriety of traveling with male team members.
CPAs played a key role in shaping the U.S. income tax framework. Recommendations from an AICPA predecessor organization persuaded lawmakers to make allowances for the accrual method and helped to form the basic structure of corporate and individual income taxes—one that exists to this day.
The income tax was intended to more fairly distribute the tax burden across geographical areas and classes. High tariffs had created higher prices for goods, hurting the agriculturally based lower classes, mainly in the South and Midwest. In 1913, only 2% of the workforce had to pay income taxes, and paying it became a status symbol for the wealthy.
The Revenue Act of 1942, designed to raise funds to pay for World War II, changed the nature of the income tax from a class tax to a mass tax. The percentage of workers filing tax returns jumped from 5% in 1939 to 90% in 1945.
With millions now paying income taxes, sales soared for CPA J.K. Lasser’s guide for taxpayers to prepare their own returns.
The rapid growth of the tax services business caught the eye of the American Bar Association, which asserted that CPAs were practicing law without a license in giving tax advice to clients. Years of debate and dialogue involving the ABA and the AICPA led to a resolution that saw professionals from both sides allowed to represent clients before the IRS or the Treasury Department.
Technological advances have dramatically altered tax preparation over the past 30 years. From the advent of the personal computer to the ability of CPAs and taxpayers to directly prepare and file tax returns online, technology now holds a central role in tax services.
As predicted in a 1913 JofA editorial, the introduction of income tax services led to expanded relationships between clients and accountants. The ability of CPA tax practitioners to distinguish themselves as trusted client advisers will prove critical in the future as technology continues to transform the tax sector.
Mark Murray ( email@example.com ) is an author and freelance writer based in New York City. Tonya K. Flesher ( firstname.lastname@example.org ), is the Arthur Andersen Professor of Accountancy, and Dale L. Flesher ( email@example.com ) is the Arthur Andersen Alumni Professor and associate dean, both in the Patterson School of Accountancy at the University of Mississippi.
To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-402-4056.
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