Passing the Tax Bar

Getting certified mail in my New England town is a pain. You’re never home when they attempt delivery. You arrive home and find the little pink slip. If you go racing to the post office, slip in hand, the letter is never there, so you have to wait till the next day.

So I knew when it came to getting the long awaited results from my Tax Court exam, it would be excruciating. The results always come via certified mail. The last time (when I didn’t pass), they sent the results to my office. This time, they were coming to my home.

The process was going to be so emotionally painful, possibly scarring, that I told my wife, over and over again, NOT to tell me when the certified slip came in (because I just couldn’t stand the agony of the overnight wait), and instead to secretly go pick up the letter, and bring it to me as a surprise the next day.

And yet I knew she was going to forget, leave the certified slip out for me, or tell me that it had come, or mention that she was going to post office. Something was going to happen to mess up my carefully laid plan to avoid this emotional trauma.

In fact, just yesterday, at Easter dinner, I reminded every one, yet again mind you, that the results letter would probably be arriving some time this next week and to keep an eye out for the certified slip, and to please observe my horribly complicated protocol.

Please, everyone, I said–indulge your dear old dad and husband. I observed my wife straining to not roll her eyes.  My son was not as successful.

Well, on Monday, our cocker spaniel had some sort of “boo-boo” in his ear, and my wife decided to take him to the vet, and then she insisted that she must drive me to the store to try on shoes. This is all because we had to go to a wedding that weekend, and she was getting tired of picking things up, bringing them to me to try them on, and returning and exchanging them. I had been tied to my office due to tax season for the last month.

Yes, this had become tedious for my dear wife. She was also annoyed that a family member had the lack of forethought to get married the weekend before April 15th. I was much more understanding than she was on this point, but her patience had worn thin with the constant shuttling back and forth, being my wardrobe concierge service.

So, she drives by my office, dog in back seat (post 20-minute-$200 vet visit), to pick me up to go to shoe store.  But first she says, “Listen, let’s drop the dog off at home.” At this point, I cross my arms and say “Just hurry this up” thinking quietly to myself that one of us in the car has an effective billing rate right now that probably translates into hundreds of dollars an hour and really does not need to be spending this next hour trying on shoes.

My house is only about 5 minutes from my office. We live on a long winding private road with 10 other hardy New Englanders with the mailboxes clustered at the entrance on the public road.

As we turn on to the long private road, I see the mail truck approaching us from the opposite direction, coming from where our house is. Oh my god! That truck is never on our private road. It must have been attempting to deliver MY Tax Court exam results!

I watch in stunned but quiet disbelief as my wife and the mail truck drive right by each other. My wife is oblivious to the monumental implications of the mail truck, and its surprise appearance on our private road.

“STOP THE CAR!” I yell, and my wife hits the brakes. I give my wife a quick dirty look, as I jump out of the car. The mail truck has stopped near the end of the road to sort the mail into our mailboxes at the end of the road.

I approach the mail truck and ask the mail lady if she has a certified letter. She looks at me: “for 45 Woods Road?” she asks casually. Oh boy, that’s my address. Something starts to swell up in my throat. She starts to fidget about her truck. The letter she must have had in her hand moments ago cannot be found. She’s flustered and not happy that I am stopping her and keeping her from taking the certified letter back to the post office so it would then have to be picked up a day later.

I am upsetting the natural order of things.

She finally finds it. Now I see it. It IS the Tax Court letter. Now she has to find the certified mail pink slip and change it because it was all set for its inevitable return to the post office but NOW it is being signed for and picked up.

But now her pen won’t write.

I study the letter that she has sitting on her steering wheel. I have had this moment before: it didn’t turn out well last time, and I am not in any hurry now.

Is this a moment I am going to savor, or just remember?

I remember this same moment two years ago. I had a similar postal encounter. Last time, the postman brought it to my door at my office. Last time, he had become a good buddy, and he had been very informed of the situation and was on the lookout. He knew what I was waiting for, and he proudly presented it to me, and he stood there and watched as I opened it, and he said, expectantly, “Well?” and I just looked down and said “Nope.” It was a bit embarrassing,and a little sad. This time I prefer the anonymity.  I’m just another certified letter to her. She could care less.

The only thing my mail lady cares about is getting her pen to write which she has finally gotten it to do. She still seems annoyed with this whole process.  (I guess I am messing up her delivery statistics or something.) I am looking at the edge of the letter. I remember hearing once that the “good letters” have two pieces of paper. The “bad letters” only have one piece of paper. So I am wondering, “Is that a “two piece letter” or a “one piece letter?” You know I think it looks a little thicker. Maybe it does have two pieces of paper in it. I ponder this.

For some reason, the mail lady turns the letter over to its back side. I think she wants a clean writing surface, since she is still trying to fill out that darn pink slip! I can now see through the backside of the envelope and can somewhat make out the contents inside. I can make out a single word in large black bold letters…O   A   T   H. I look again…yes, that’s definitely what it says: “OATH.”

Oh, this is very good, because people failing the exam don’t have to take an oath! Yippie! I look back to my car and give my wife a thumb’s up, but she is otherwise engaged, busily talking on her cell phone, totally oblivious to all my drama.

Finally, the letter carrier hands me the pink slip and asks me to sign, which I dutifully do, and then she hands me the letter. Now I savor NOT having to open it and yet knowing what it must say. I can now clearly read through the back of the envelope the words “PRACTITIONER’S OATH.” I know I passed and don’t even have to open it. Oh, yes, what a sublimely pleasant feeling. I want to enjoy this a little bit longer. I am just relieved not to have to take the test again, which I was so totally prepared to have to do.

I hop in the car and tell my wife, “Guess what, I passed!” She looks at me quizzically. “Passed what? Oh, that test you took? That’s nice.”


Update:  It’s been four years since I was admitted and sworn in to the U S Tax Bar and now have an active case load, but I’ll never forget that wonderful day with my wife, the dog in the back seat, the mail truck, and the certified letter.

PS–It was nearly a year later before I appeared in court before a judge.  I write that one in my blog.


If you happen to be reading this because you are interested in taking the U S Tax Court exam for non-attorneys, I would be happy to discuss my experiences with you and what it is like to practice in Tax Court.  Just call the office listed on the first page.  You can also make a phone appointment.  By the way, I am very interested in forming a “mentor/peer group” of ACTIVE US Tax Court practitioners who want to share experiences on a monthly basis.  Finally, I heartily endorse Sherrill Trovato’s course if you are interested in a formal approach to studying for the Tax Court exam.  Information can be found here.

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