Doing taxes is the royal pain it is for reasons more domestic than federally bureaucratic. The really big job, in other words, is to assemble all of the necessary slips of paper that actually prove that we exist. In Taxland, that is. Those pieces of paper rarely matter, but when they do, they really do. I remember the shock I experienced some years ago when, applying for Social Security on or around my reaching ultimate ripeness, the SS Administration turned up its nose at all manner of proofs that I exist—my immigration certificate, my citizenship certificate, my honorable discharge from the Army, and lesser documents yet. No! They wanted my birth certificate! But here I was, age sixty-six, and I’d never actually seen it—only a typed translation from the Hungarian into German, I think, that my father had procured by some odd stratagem in the late 1940s. I was born in Budapest just before that city was laid under siege by the armies of the U.S.S.R. during World War II. The city was badly bombed and shelled. Could I possibly get anyone now, two-score-years-and-counting later, to come up with that piece of paper from over there? So far as the SSA was concerned I hadn’t been born; I was the mirage of an elderly man; I existed physically, for there I stood—and in the United States of America I had the necessary papers to prove myself real—but not in SSA Land. I began the process by painstakingly assembling old Hungarian words to address the Hungarian Embassy in New York (on paper, of course), the folk bureaucratically indicated as the keepers of the gate. Amazingly it all went very smoothly. Thanks to humanity’s widespread passion for hoarding old records, the appropriate place in Budapest still knew me! Heaven be thanked! They hadn’t been bombed or burned! Now came another surprise. SSA accepted the certificate as it was, in Hungarian, and scoffed at my offer to provide them a translation. “We’ll take care of that,” they told me with dark knowingness. And now, that I existed, I could approach the table and sit down.
Even in those days now half forgotten when at tax time you praised the Lord for electrical calculators and sharp pencils, I’d come to the conclusion that actually doing the taxes, which amounted to filling in blanks as instructed, was not really beyond the powers of a person able to read. Indeed, back then, I used to joke that I made my living by the power to read alone; many had learned the art but had decided not to exercise it once out of school. But the trauma of tax-time was then no different. Find the little pieces of paper.
TurboTax, my well-paid slave (this year’s package cost me $60), automates the fill-out-the-form process, thus shaving a very thin sliver of effort from the entire process. You still have to enter the data on the keyboard, but all the numbers will end up in the right place, the slave does all the look-ups, does all the calculations—and dispenses good advice during the process. But this begins after you’ve assembled that ominously named documentation.
This year, horror of horrors, I discovered at the end of the longish day that we owed a huge amount in taxes, over against last year, despite the fact that our income was just a thumb-width greater than in 2007. Why? Why? Why? The printout of the new 2008 tax form on the screen, I compared it to the printed version of the 2007 return—and discovered that, somehow, we were missing (shriek, cackle!—as the comics put it)—two pieces of paper!!!
We were missing, to be specific, two form 1099-Rs, those that recorded our RMDs from our IRAs, one from Brigitte’s, one from mine. I’d filled in the actually RMD amounts from other data; but without the forms themselves, I could not discover whether we’d paid income taxes on those sums or, worse, had not. RMDs have now etched themselves into my memory after these experiences. The letters stand for “required minimum distribution” from “individual retirement accounts.”
As always on these momentous days, I descended from the fumes and nasty fires of my working desk upstairs to find Brigitte serenely living her life, watering plants in our bright sunroom. Brigitte is Keeper of Records and CFO of this unit; nowadays letters like that must be appended to underline the person’s importance. Her face took on a rigid form. The search for 1099-Rs began. It took a while. The tension mounted. At last we found a soiled copy of mine, abraded somewhat by having slipped off a tax-pile on a desk. We already had the number, not the paper! At last. The second one required, finally, a telephone call to Merrill Lynch, the spelling of whose name (two Rs, two Ls) tax time always re-teaches me. Now we are in the clear, at last, and the turbotaxonomy of our lives is ordered properly. I can breathe easier now and therefore have decided to postpone e-mailing our Federal return until tomorrow.