Charity begins at home, and so must pro bono legal work. So when it came time for my 95-year-old mother to do her federal tax return, I stepped up to the plate to do it on her behalf. My own law practice requires the expertise of
a seasoned CPA to sort out and apply the frequently changing rules and rulings, the special schedules for this type of
loss and that type of revenue, the depreciation of whatever,
and the myriad expenses of running a law firm business.
By contrast, my nonagenarian mother’s only income comes from Social
Security and survivor’s benefits paid
from my deceased father’s military and
government service pensions, and she
is mighty grateful for them. She has no
savings to speak of and no investment
income, owns no real estate, no stocks,
and no bonds. She lives in a nursing
home where medical expenses are paid
by Medicare and Tricare, while her co-pay living expenses consume the better
part of her retirement checks.
So how difficult could it be to prepare
her tax return? A piece of cake, I thought.
A slice of pie. A walk in the park. Any
lawyer — even a non-tax attorney such
as myself — could handle this with ease.
What could possibly go wrong?
So I downloaded the forms and
slogged through the 217-page, 2. 7 MB
PDF “Instruction Manual” for the 2012
1040 tax return. After much time,
some serious eyestrain, lots of yellow
highlighting, and sticky yellow flags
and penciled arrows connecting this
subsection with that subsection, some
calculations and additions and subtractions and multiplications, and more additions and subtractions, and looking
up this chart and that chart and crosschecking this with that, I reached, with
some degree of lawyerly confidence,
the correct amount of taxes my Medicared mother owed: a whopping $149.
“That’s good,” said my mother, who
considers this a lot of money and, actuated by her Great Depression notions
of good government, actually wants
to pay taxes. Her contribution would
help those who need help, she told
me . . . and also help support armed
drone attacks in Pakistan, NSA telecom surveillance, bank bailouts on
Wall Street, and weapons shipments to
Syria, I mused silently to myself.
So she signed the tax return, I prepared the check for her, and sent her
money off to the Internal Revenue Service well before the due date of April 15.
Three weeks later, “The Service” (as
the IRS calls itself) responded. The Service, it wrote in a letter that appeared to
have popped out of an early computer-age dot-matrix printer, believed that my
mother had more income than reported
on the Form 1040, and that she owed
another $484, payable within 14 days.
She could 1) pay the additional money,
2) request an audit, subject to interest
and late-payment penalties, or 3) call a
Deep in the
Art of Taxes
by Steven A. Reisler