Thursday, March 18, 2010

How to celebrate the anniversary of screwing up your taxes: Do it again

"We have a letter from the IRS saying we owe them money!" is not what you want to hear when you pick up the phone to answer a call from your spouse.

Ten years ago, the first year we were together, David and I managed to short the IRS to the tune of three grand and unexpectedly owe it all come April 15. The culprit was W-4 confusion: We both checked "married," not realizing that would set our withholdings as if we were each married *and* the family's only wage-earner. Throw together two salaries and a higher tax bracket and you have an expensive oops.

Since then, I've been pretty meticulous about the taxes, and we traditionally come in for a hefty refund. (Yes, intentionally -- we both would rather use the forced savings of overpaying the IRS than cut it close and end up owing. I realise that's financially foolish, but so far, the money I'm "losing" this way isn't enough for me to care.) This year's refund landed in my bank account just three days before David's panicky phone call.

It turns out what we owed money for was our 2008 taxes. "The income and payment information that we have on file does not match entries on your 2008 Form 1040," the letter sternly informed me.

"Calm down, wait till I get home, and I'll go through the records," I told David.

"Please give the IRS money so nothing bad will happen!!!" he replied. I admit, I shared a bit of the panic -- stiffing the IRS sounds like one of those things the federal government takes a very dim view of.

The form had one slightly reassuring line in it, though. "If this information is correct, you will owe $508," it said.

Okay. Suddenly owing $508 is no fun, but it's not like we were being told "cough up $10,000 and prepare for a stint in the debtors' gulag, and by the way, we're now gonna audit EVERY FORM YOU'VE EVER FILED WITH US, you untrustworthy tax-dodging leech."

The letter's "summary of proposed changes" showed two income payments unaccounted for on my 2008 taxes, but apparently very accounted for in documents the paying parties sent on to the IRS.

The first was $1,200 from Time Inc. for freelance work I did before I joined the staff, and for which I'd been paid on a 1099. When I went back in my records, I realised to my chagrin that the IRS was right. The work was done in late 2007 and paid in early 2008, and I'd totally forgotten about it by the time I filed my 2008 taxes -- which I did before the 1099 arrived in the mail. I hadn't included it. Note to self: columnist Matthew might be on to something with his checklist manifesto.

The second entry in the IRS list was "taxable dividends" of ... $13. This came from the Sharesave account I cashed out just eight months after I started, because I left the company long before the shares vested. Apparently I made $13 in interest off it. I have no idea if that's true or not -- my dim recollection is that I got back exactly what I'd put in -- but since the taxes due on $13 are about what a cup of overpriced coffee costs, I had no interest whatsoever in digging out records or trying to fight that charge.

Happily, the penalties on stiffing the IRS -- at least for the three-figure amount I did -- are completely minor. The IRS says I owe $489 in taxes on the $1,213 I underreported, and $19 for a year's worth of interest. That's it. No "pay this draconian fine so you learn to never again shortchange the taxman" fees. I'd owe more interest and possibly some penalties if I didn't pay up straight away, but if I sent the check before March 31, I'd be back in Uncle Sam's good graces.

I cut the check that night. ("I will take this to the mailbox right this second," David said, sealing the envelope as he changed out the door.) The Treasury cashed it yesterday.

And I hope to never again be a tax scofflaw. I mean, I'm pretty sure the government (current debt: $12,644,040,577,175) kinda needs the cash.