There are two sure things, it is said – death and taxes. This observation is attributed to Benjamin Franklin and it remains true. Only this week the order seems to be reversed.
This has been a challenging week. Taxes were due on Monday the fifteenth. And, of course, I was working on them up until the last day. I don’t always procrastinate, but when I do it tends to be on things in my personal life. But a deadline is a deadline and must be met.
I have always done my own taxes. Friends have told me that I am crazy, that it is so much easier to send them to an accountant. I, however, am a dedicated do-it-yourselfer. Where is the fun, challenge and excitement in dropping a shoebox full of receipts and such at someone else’s office? OK, maybe just challenge and excitement.
I will admit that the process gets more frustrating every year – even with the bit of software I buy that makes the process so much nicer than the old days of paper forms that always seemed to require two sets – a first draft requiring a pencil with a good eraser followed by a final copy done in ink.
As a lawyer who studied economics before studying law, the tax code is a confounding thing. It seems that our government cannot decide the tax code’s real purpose. Is it for raising revenue to buy all of those submarines and jet airplanes? Or is it a big behavior modification method that nudges us all to live the way that good little boys and girls should?
Lawyer-me is not naive enough to believe that there can ever be such a thing as a postcard-sized tax return. Oops, I just used an example that is completely worthless with anyone under the age of thirty-five.
The holy grail of a simple one-page return comes up every few years but in my day job I know that simplicity almost always comes at the expense of precision and clarity. I once heard someone describe the ideal tax return as one that asked “How much did you make and how much did it cost you to make it? Take the last number and multiply it by X%.”
Each of those first two questions comes packed with a freight train’s worth of – well, let’s just call them “interpretation issues.” Gee, my income was all eaten up by my expenses because I desperately needed an expensive car and lots of new suits to practice law. This is why there are tax courts and pages and pages of court opinions and IRS interpretive bulletins to separate what is a legitimate expense and what is not.
Court and IRS rulings aside, it is the tax code itself that seems to have gone way past the point of sensible. Those who get a simple W-2 form for wages may grouse about doing their taxes but those of us who are older and with more complex lives bear the brunt of the endless amendments to the tax code that all start off with “Gee, we ought to encourage [insert good idea here]. Why not offer a deduction or a credit to nudge people to do this?”
One or two or fifteen of these are not a problem. But pretty soon you end up with something that looks like – well, our tax code. I remember taking an income tax class in law school. Then (the first half of the 1980’s) we were working with the Internal Revenue Code of 1954. With amendments, of course. This was a really thick paperback book. That was useless the following year because there were more amendments after it was printed. There are always more amendments.
Oh well, it is done for the year. Just in time to go to a funeral for a dear family member. She was a sweet lady who lived a good life but who battled health problems for the last several years. There were no second thoughts about going to the out-of-town funeral to say our goodbyes. She will be missed.
I must say that I have never had death and taxes come so close together. I think I prefer the taxes.
Photo Credit: Circa 1785 portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Siffrein Duplessis. The painting is in the public domain. The original hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.