It is time once again for our annual feature "Tax Advice for Humans," the column that explains our complex federal tax laws to you in simple, everyday terms that have virtually nothing to do with reality. This is the only tax-advice column that has the courage to give you the following written guarantee in writing:
"If, as a result of following the advice in this column, you are for any reason whatsoever confined to a federal prison, we will personally come and live in your house until your refrigerator is out of beer."So let's get started! Most likely the foremost question in your mind, as you prepare to fill out your federal tax forms, is: "Can I cheat?" A lot of taxpayers are thinking that this is a good year to take advantage of the Internal Revenue Service because of the way it got hammered in those congressional hearings last September. Remember? One by one, taxpayers went before the Senate Finance Committee and told alarming stories like this:
"I got a letter from the IRS computer stating that I owed taxes back to the year 427 B.C., which seemed like a mistake, plus the letter addressed me as `The Dionne Quintuplets,' so I went down to the IRS office to straighten things out, and the next thing I knew I was being dangled from a helicopter by one leg."
When the nation heard these stories, everybody was outraged. The IRS formally apologized to the taxpayers and ordered the dismantling of the agency's primary guillotine.
So a lot of people are thinking that this year, while the IRS is under fire, is a good time to "play fast and loose" with their tax returns, and maybe even get revenge for the years of abuse by yanking the IRS's chain a little bit. One leading tax-preparation firm, which I will not identify here except by its initials, "H" and "R," has gone so far as to write taunting remarks in the margins of its clients' tax returns, such as:
- "Hey Audit Breath! If you don't believe I spent a 100 percent deductible total of $224,123 on Pez, perhaps you would like me to complain to the Senate Finance Committee?"
- "No I shall NOT enclose Form 10448275-J! I shall use Form 10448275-J for INTIMATE HYGIENE PURPOSES HA-HA-HA-HA!"
This kind of thing is, of course, a lot of fun, but we are not recommending it. What many people do not realize is that, after the IRS finished publicly apologizing to thetaxpayers who testified against it last September, it quietly tracked them down and relieved them of all of their worldly possessions, including corneas.
So we are not recommending that you cheat. You should heed the words of IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti, who, in this year's Letter to Taxpayers, states: "Every citizen owes it to the nation to pay his or her fair share of taxes, unless of course he or she has made a whopping cash contribution to a key congressperson or President Bill `Mr. Coffee' Clinton or Vice President Al `I Honestly Thought That They Were Just a Bunch Of Very Wealthy Buddhist Nuns!' Gore."
Here are some questions that you are likely to ask in preparing your tax returns this year:
Q. Did the government change the tax laws again?
A. Ha ha! That is the stupidest question we have ever heard! Of COURSE the government changed the tax laws! The government had no choice! The government found out that, despite the fact that the U.S. Tax Code is larger than the entire state of Connecticut, there was still one U.S. taxpayer, Norbridge K. Trongle Jr., who was able to correctly prepare his own tax return. The government considered handling this threat to the national security by sending a B-2 "Stealth" bomber to destroy Mr. Trongle's house and financial records, but the Air Force vetoed this plan because of the risk that the $2 billion plane would be brought down by Mr. Trongle's lawn sprinkler. So the House and Senate Joint Tax Mutation Committee swung into action and made a number of significant changes to the Tax Code, which you need to know about.
Q. What, specifically, are these changes?
A. Nobody knows.
Q. How many taxpayers will have their total income-tax payments, for the entire year, used to provide food, housing, transportation, medical care, Secret Service protection and chew toys for Buddy, the new White House dog?
A. White House spokeshuman Mike McCurry says that the "best estimate" is currently "around 300 taxpayers," but notes that this number could rise significantly "if Buddy is implicated in this Whitewater thing."
Q. In your opinion, what is the single most common error that I am likely to make as a taxpayer?
A. In our opinion, that would be having "light" beer in your refrigerator.