Last December was memorable for an unprecedented sight: people lining up, eager to pay their property taxes before they were due. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 took effect January 1, 2018, limiting the deductibility of property tax payments made after that date, but a New Jersey bill is quickly advancing toward law that would characterize some portion of real estate tax payments as fully deductible charitable contributions.
Despite these stranger-than-fiction truths and the general timeliness of the subject, I debated whether an entire column on taxation (in all its bizarre glory) would be appreciated. My conclusion? Probably not. But like a trucker who’s logged too many hours on the (financial) information superhighway, I’ll plow ahead anyway. 1040, good buddy!
Amid the many pages of instructions for the standard 1040 tax form, there are a few items that I’ve always wondered about. For example, does the IRS get many questions from UFO believers about “resident alien” and “non-resident alien” status? Having given this some thought, I’ll offer my interpretation: a resident alien is one who’s here for a long-term stay, like Mork or ALF, while a nonresident alien would be one who’s always on the go like Dr. Who, Mr. Spock, or your garden variety planet invader. Then there are the difficult partial-year resident cases like that of E.T., where a comparatively brief stay on Earth necessitates a complex pro-rata fractional calculation.
If you believe any of these situations, or the “resident alien spouse”/”nonresident alien spouse” designations are applicable in your situation, consult your accountant, and watch a little less television.
At the back of the instruction booklet, there’s mention of a $5,000 penalty for filing a “frivolous return.” Frivolity is not something typically associated with the Internal Revenue Service, so it’s not surprising they don’t have much patience for it. Examples of frivolous arguments include claims that federal income tax payments are not required because you prefer to be considered a citizen of your state, not your country, or because the 5th Amendment prohibits the taking of property without “due process.” (New Jersey’s property taxes-as-charitable contributions scheme might make a new addition to the list.) These theories seem to be the work of people with a lot of free time and imagination, but perhaps not quite enough free time and imagination to conjure up an alien spouse.
The words “Death of a Taxpayer” in big, bold letters also caught my eye. Unfortunately, this turned out to be just another section of dry language regarding steps to file a tax return for a person who’s died, and did not refer, as I’d hoped, to a remake of Arthur Miller’s classic tragedy, seen from an IRS point of view.
On the same page is an explanation of the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (PECF), created in 1976 to reduce candidates’ dependence on large contributors. There’s a tiny box near the top of the 1040 form that you can check off to dedicate $3 toward the fund. You can almost hear the TV pitch: “For the cost of a cup of coffee, these underprivileged politicians can have a media budget…”
Although checking the box neither raises nor reduces your refund, it is perhaps a barometer of the trust Americans have in their government that, according to the Federal Election Commission website, the number of taxpayers who do check the box has followed a declining trend, from 27.5 percent in 1976, to 11.3 percent in 2002, to an all-time low of 4.1 percent in 2017. In 2014, a law was passed that stopped funding party conventions and devoted that money to pediatric medical research instead, a move that for many Americans might be the very definition of “putting lipstick on a pig.”
I’m actually a big proponent of the PECF—in theory. In practice, not even the candidates like it, because it limits the total amount that can be spent, as well as how and where that money can be used. Also, while payouts are indexed to inflation, deposits are not; thus, there’s been some talk about raising the “check-off” amount from $3 to $20, and easing the limitations, which seems a worthwhile idea.
Combined with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the PECF’s shortcomings have changed the way campaigns are run in America; no candidate has won the presidency without declining at least some government funds since Bill Clinton in 1996, and not since George W. Bush has a candidate won while accepting government funds (and limitations) for the general election.
After all this instruction-reading and research—commonly known as “stalling”—it was finally time to get on with it and begin preparing my tax return. You’ve probably heard of the old (apocryphal) Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.” The modern-day equivalent, at least in the month of April, might be “May you have an interesting tax return,” as in “never the same two years in a row.” Due to various issues relating to self-employment, health insurance, and deductions, each of the last decade’s annual returns have contained complications that put me well in excess of the IRS estimated time allotment.
I put my faith in tax software to prepare my return—software that every year features an on-screen interview that asks me, apparently without comedic intent, to check off a box if I’m blind. Maybe my faith is misplaced—when Benjamin Franklin observed the certainty of death and taxes, it’s a safe bet that his comments didn’t extend to include the consistency of tax laws, or the software designed around them. One thing that is certain: next April will be an extremely taxing time once again.
Peter Dabbene’s website is peterdabbene.com. The final chapter of his Chinese history series, “Stereotypes and Stoogery: A Deconstructed Dissertation”, can be viewed at decasp.com. His latest book, The End of Spamming the Spammers (with Dieter P. Bieny) is available on Amazon.