How to Get Those Back Taxes Done if One of You Has ADHD

One idea of hell, according to several of my clients, is waiting for an ADHD partner who insists on managing the taxes to actually get them done.  I can’t tell you the number of couples who have approached me who have multiple years of back tax returns and don’t have a plan for how to do them.  It has become a toxic, overwhelming topic in the relationship.  Typically the non-ADHD partner is out of patience, while the ADHD partner continues to insist “get off my back, I will get to them!”

The issues here are many:  adversarial roles between partners across many domains of their relationship; financial stressors; disorganization; poor planning and feelings Non-ADHD partners play a role, too, as their anger and frustration add to the overwhelm and general toxicity of the topic in the household. 

When couples come to me with this issue I try to:

  • Get them to depersonalize the project – this isn’t about one partner’s failure, it’s about a task that needs to be completed
  • Simplify the steps to solving the problem as much as possible.

Depersonalizing the issue

As long as the conversations focuses around how disappointed the non-ADHD (or other ADHD) partner is that the taxes have not been done yet, the issue will remain one that elicits strong, difficult emotions that may regularly result in conflict.  These might include anger, defensiveness, stonewalling, overwhelm, and shame.  None of them help get the project completed – in fact, they are likely to interfere as they will put the ADHD partner on the defensive.  So I encourage non-ADHD partners to start thinking about the best way to get the task accomplished, and that’s to de-tox the situation.  Being angry isn’t going to get the ADHD partner to start doing the work – it hasn’t so far!  Try a better tactic – being supportive.

Non-ADHD partners tend to resist this advice.  They are legitimately angry, and feel they should be able to vent their feelings.  Why should I be supportive?  After all, it’s their partner’s actions that have earned their anger.  I’m not saying the anger isn’t all right.  I’m suggesting that the venting (and nagging/reminding) doesn’t work as a successful motivator and, instead, is a de-motivator.  It would be far better to say “Yes, I admit I’m angry that we might incur penalties for our late taxes.  But what I’m focused on is what each of us can do to get the taxes in soon so neither of us needs to think about them any more.  Let’s figure out a plan that we both can contribute to.”

Simplify the steps

One couple I worked with had 4 years of back taxes to do, and many receipts all over the place from a small business they owned.  This made the task at hand feel overwhelming.  So we set up this simple plan:

Step 1 – get four book boxes for moving and label them 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.  The first task was to take everything they had that was related to taxes and put it in one of the four boxes.  That included looking in all of the closets and desk drawers for stray receipts.  To do this, they set aside a series of Sunday mornings, and played music to make it more fun.

Step 2 – start with 2014 and use a similar system.  This time they used a large folding table and put yellow stickies on it with the different categories of paper they were trying to sort.  Financial statements, office supplies, food & entertainment, and donations were a few of the labels they created.  Again, they sorted in dedicated sessions, with music.  They had a separate pile for 'things I need to follow up on.'

Step 3 – once they had one year’s documents sorted, the partner who generally did the taxes started doing the paperwork and either a.) assigned some work to the other partner (for example, add up the total of all of our donations for which we have a receipt and put it into a spreadsheet) or b.) the other partner started sorting for the following fiscal year (in a different location, of course.)

Step 4 (optional) – take the tabulated information to a tax prep firm to complete the tax paperwork and calculate your penalties (if any) for you.  Alternatively, use some tax software to do the same.  The benefit of the former is that you can pay a professional a smallish fee to do something that can take a long time, while you spend time doing what that professional cannot do – getting organized for the next year’s return.

This approach takes what starts out as an overwhelming, toxic and complicated project and breaks it down into progressively smaller chunks until it is manageable.  It worked for this couple, and can work for you, too.