Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Only Things Guaranteed in Life -- Death and Taxes

Sometimes, those certainties become grotesquely intertwined.

Brian died in January of 2010.  That spring, I filed our income tax return as we always did.  That refund, along with our savings and Brian's 2009 work bonus (which paid out in the early spring), kept my financial boat afloat until my life insurance claim was processed and I received those funds.  The life insurance was immensely helpful in that it allowed me to pay off the nearly $20,000 funeral debt I was carrying on my credit card, let me pay off Brian's car, and allowed me to take some time off work and get myself sorted out, as much as one can....but that's a different post.  This one is about taxes.

I went to Austin in the summer of 2010, thinking it would be a short-term getaway, a sojourn to the South.  I took strongly to Texas, and I made it my permenent home in December of that year.  In the spring of 2011, I was settling into my new home state, adapting to life on my own in the big city, and taking real estate courses to prepare for my next professional venture.  Soon enough, it was tax time again.  Luckily, I have a fantastic tax advisor in Jason Dinesen (http://dinesentax.com/about-jason), who was Brian's college roommate and good friend.  He keeps me in line and on time with all things tax-related.  Between him and my financial advisor, Matt McCulla (http://www.ameripriseadvisors.com/matthew.r.mcculla), I know I'm in good hands.  Brian and I started working with Matt before we were even married, while I was still in law school, and when we barely had any money to make decisions with and to invest.  Still, he found a way to get us started with IRAs, 401(k)s, and the necessary insurance.  I will always be grateful that we had our finances in order at such a young age.  Not only did it serve me well when I needed it most, but we felt stable and secure knowing we were looking out for our future, and I think Brian was proud of that.  When someone dies, it feels good to know that that person was happy with his life decisions and had no regrets.  Everyone regarded Brian as a fun, outgoing person who grabbed every opportunity for enjoyment and ran with it.  He was that, yes, but he was also incredibly responsible, intelligent, and forward-thinking.  I felt a great deal of relief and peace that he had the building blocks of his life lined up so well and that he left this world with a life he was proud of and happy with (and a wife who would add this parenthetical to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition). 

But I digress.

In the spring of 2011, Jason contacted me to ask for my tax paperwork -- W-2s, mortgage and student loan interest statements, car registrations, etc.  I gathered everything up and sent it to him, and he prepared my tax return.  Somehow, we were not pushing the deadline that year, so kudos to Jason for getting the ball rolling early.  Then, Jason called and told me that he wasn't able to file my return online for some reason.  He couldn't figure out what the problem was, and no one at the IRS could or would talk to him about it because it wasn't his return.  So I called the IRS to ask what was going on.  I was told that we'd need to file a paper return, end of story.  I didn't know why, but I relayed the message to Jason, who filed a timely return by snail mail.  I figured I'd have my tax refund in a month or so. 

Months passed.  No tax refund came.  In August, Jason had me file a Power of Attorney form so that he could talk to the IRS directly on my behalf.  He found out that the IRS needed a copy of Brian's death certificate, as well as some other form filled out.  Funny -- they didn't need that for the 2009 return, even though I was the only one who signed that, signing my name as "Surviving Spouse of the Deceased" on that return. 

A feeling of dread overtook me.  For one, I thought I had handled everything relating to Brian's affairs -- funeral bills, the hospital and ambulance bills, selling the house, selling my car, putting his car in my name, turning off his cell phone (dealing with Verizon was a nightmare -- literally harder to take care of his cell phone than it was to sort out life insurance and our mortgage!), etc.  Now, here was one more thing that would require me to pull out the dreaded death certificate, to look at some official document that proved, in black and white, that Brian was gone.  I hate that piece of paper more than anything in the world.  On top of that, I'd just moved to Texas, and hadn't done the best job of that, leaving random things that didn't have a place in my car or my apartment with friends and family in Iowa.  I had no idea where the key to my safe was, but that's where the copies of that awful document were located.

Right around this time, a flurry of activity took over my life -- I sub-leased my apartment, bought a tiny condo in Austin for mixed personal/rental use, and moved in with Sheldon in San Antonio.  It was literally a three-way move -- some stuff from my apartment went to the condo, some to the house.  Sometimes I'd fill a box to take to San Antonio, unpack it, fill it with stuff of Sheldon's, and then take that stuff back to Austin to the condo, where I'd unpack it, then take the same empty box back to the apartment to start again.  I was hoping that somewhere along the line, I'd find the keys to the safe.

Finally, after the moving was complete, I located the key and was able to get into the safe and get a copy of the death certificate to give to the IRS.  I filled out the necessary paperwork and sent it, along with the certificate, to the IRS.

Months passed.  The next thing to come from the IRS was not my tax return, but instead a letter threatening legal action if I didn't file a 2010 tax return.  This was right before the holidays in 2011.  Happy holidays, huh?  We called the IRS to see what they were talking about, since I had filed a return, I had submitted extra documentation, and I was actually owed a refund and not a "nasty-gram," as Jason and I have taken to calling them.  We were told that someone had filed a tax return using Brian's social security number already.  He was dead, but that didn't make him immune from identity theft.

So why did I get that nasty letter?  The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing at the IRS, to put it simply.  The division in charge of processing returns, the division in charge of identity theft, and the division in charge of hunting down tax evaders all do their own thing without any communication or cross-reference.  I thought a phone call and letter from Jason would straighten all this out.  Instead, I continued to get those scary letters every few months.

Finally, Jason was able to get the letters to stop.  He simply had the nasty-gram people put a hold on those letters until the identity theft people can get this sorted out.  Eighteen months later, that's all the progress that has been made.  I'm not getting letters threatening legal action anymore, but I still don't have my tax refund that the government owes me, and more important -- I don't have resolution.  I don't know what is happening with the scum that took my dead husband's social security number and filed a fraudulent return.  I don't know who that is, or whether that person has been caught.  I know he or she has created a painful nightmare for me and a lot of work for my tax advisor.  Jason has been writing about this ordeal on his tax blog, The Dinesen Tax Times.  You can read the posts at http://dinesentax.com/.  He's breaking this up into a series of posts, and is 4 posts in at this point.  (Be sure to read the posts in order.)

Jason has been a champion and an advocate for me throughout all this.  I'm so grateful that he has taken on the task of following up with the IRS every 90 days or so, and that he is the person who calls and writes letters on my behalf.  I am frustrated with this situation, but I would be blood-boilingly angry and stressed out to the max if I had to talk to the IRS bureaucrats about this every couple months.  The worst part is that every time he calls, he has to start the story from scratch because it's such a big organization that no one knows what's going on -- it's like the letters he sends disapper into a black hole and there is no system for keeping notes on individual files.  That would frustrate me to no end, not to mention the awful feeling I get when I have to tell strangers over the phone that Brian Boka is deceased, I am his wife, and that I'm trying to take care of something.  Those phone calls are the worst -- awkward, stilted sympathy from the stranger on the other line, reciting dates of death and social security numbers, willing away the tears that flood my eyes, trying to focus on the task at hand....and in this case, knowing the call won't really resolve the issue.

Right now, we are at a stalemate.  The status quo is simply that nothing is happening.  I'm not getting my refund, I'm not getting hate mail from the IRS, and I'm not getting answers.  Somehow I doubt that I'll get interest and late penalties from the IRS when I do get my return, even though I'd owe those if I really was late.  Maybe I should be the one sending the nasty-grams. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Paper Trail

I'm getting my application ready for the Texas Bar Association.  I'm applying for admission without exam, which is available because I have spent five of the past seven years practicing in another state (Iowa).  The application itself is something like 25 pages long, and requires a boatload of documents.  This is where I'm running into issues.

Among the things I need to provide to the state bar association are:  tax returns for the past seven years, my birth certificate, marriage certificate, name change certificate, transcripts, test results, a copy of my old business card, a copy of my driver's license, a job description (or, in lieu of that, I need to have someone from my old firm write a letter on official letterhead describing what I did as an attorney and how many hours I worked), certificates of good standing from other bar associations, and much, much more.  It's ridiculous.  Things have be timed just so -- I can't submit certificates of good standing that are more than 30 days old, so I'm requesting those last.

As part of this process, I realized I really need to get a Texas driver's license.  My Iowa ID expired in the process of my move, so I renewed it in Iowa right before I sold my house and moved to Texas, so I guess I wasn't in a rush to do that.  Well, getting my Texas ID has proved frustrating and difficult too.  You have to have a lot of documents -- social security card and/or passport, proof of vehicle registration and insurance, bills sent in your name to your current address.  Twice, I've thought I had everything together.  Twice, I've gone to the DOT with a stack of documents.  Twice, I didn't have the right stuff.  First, it was that I needed a second document to prove residency.  The second time (about two hours ago), it was that my vehicle registration paperwork was expired.  Nevermind that my vehicle has a registration sticker that is current -- they need the piece of paper that said sticker came on.  Well, I can't find that.  And, now I've gotten home and realized, I can't even find my Iowa driver's license.  I know the lady at the DOT had it briefly, and I haven't seen it since.  Did I leave it there?  I don't know -- their phone line is perpetually busy, and now they are closed!  So, despite my best efforts to get everything in order and comply with state laws, now I am going to be driving without a license until I can track that down, if I even can.  If I can't, then I can only imagine the hoops I'll have to go through and how many trips to the DOT it will take to get my Texas license.  It's incredibly frustrating that it's taken so many hours to try to do it already, to no avail.  I feel completely incompetent and foolish that I haven't been able to achieve this seemingly easy task, and that I've squandered so much time and gas money on this stupid little thing.

I should also add that I'm apparently awful at keeping things together.  I didn't have any of my old business cards, so I put out a plea on Facebook.  My old cheerleading coach had a card and mailed it to me.  Now I have no idea where I put it.  I am just really struggling to get all the scores of documents I need for any one thing all in the same place at the same time.  It is taking me way too long to get all this done.

Also in the meantime, all my bar association renewal notices for the State of Arizona (where I am also licensed) were being mailed to my old law firm in Iowa.  Not until they got certified mail notifying them/me that I was going to be suspended for nonpayment of dues did they forward this my way.  By then, it was too late.  So I've been dealing with that too -- trying to change my status in Arizona from "suspended" to "resigned in lieu of suspension."  And now I have to change that answer on my Texas bar application, and add yet another page to the application to explain that.

Well, I guess I'm back to square one on everything on Monday....actually, "square one" would be where I started.  I actually lost my Iowa license, so that puts me BEHIND where I started.  Months later, I'm making negative progress. 

I feel like a salmon swimming upstream.  Except salmon don't dish out $1,000 in application fees for the privilege of that swim.

Monday, August 6, 2012

I Have A Dream

This weekend we went to a wedding in Virginia.  We're both pretty busy with work at the moment, so it was a quick trip (literally, flying in on Friday afternoon and flying home Sunday night).  Still, it was a great time. Friday and Saturday night were great -- spending time with our friends, meeting new ones, etc.  The wedding was at a winery, so I was in heaven! 

On Sunday, we even had the chance to see a few of the sights in Washington, D.C.  We had a fantastic lunch at the cafe in the W Hotel, just next to the White House, then spent a couple hours walking around the National Mall, where we saw the following:  Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, the White House, WWII Memorial (a new one for me, since my last time in DC, and our favorite), the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and a few other statues and memorial dedications.  While walking along the national mall, an elderly couple strolling along caught my eye.  "I wonder what we'll look like, what we'll wear, where we'll go for vacation, when we're old," I said.

I haven't really let myself think that way much with Sheldon.  I have been afraid to look forward to something, in case the unthinkable happens again.  I have been hesitant to assume that we will, in fact, grow old together -- it's not the together part that is a question, but the "growing old" part that I have a distrust of, deep in my heart.  I had planned on that, banked on it, dreamed of it, and built my life around that assumption once.  It's taken me a while to start to think I could start doing that again.

I still know that it might not happen, and I still have a fear of tragedy that casts a larger shadow on my psyche and my vision for the future than most people.  Still, I am starting to be more objective and know that that kind of thinking is based in fear and pain, and isn't rooted in a logical assumption of life, based on what normally happens.  More importantly, it isn't based in hope and love.

I always want to look at the world with eyes of possibility and love, not fear and protection.  I always want to hope, dream, and love fully.  I took a step in that direction amongst the trees lining the walkway between Washington and Lincoln this weekend, and I like where I am heading.  And I love the man who will grow old next to me as I walk that path.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Widowland....It's a Small World After All

My last post was about a weekend we spent on a lake.  While there, we met some new friends, Gabby and Blair.  I didn't tell anyone that weekend about Brian, or that I'm a widow.  We've since seen those two again, at a Wine Club gathering at our house, and we got along fabulously.  In fact, they were the first to arrive and the last to leave.  This time, I let them in -- or at least Gabby, anyway -- on the full story of my past, but only because it came out in the most uncanny of ways.

In conversation, we were talking about our families.  Gabby mentioned that she had a brother who had died in the armed forces at a very young age, leaving behind a young wife and child (maybe two children...wine makes the details fuzzy).  She spoke of her sister-in-law, who is still very much a part of her family.  She talked about how it took this young woman a long time to get herself together, to heal, to move on, and how her boyfriend is now fully embraced by the family.  She talked about her sister-in-law's boyfriend, and how they have pictures of her brother in their home.

I couldn't help but be struck by the similarities between Gabby's sister-in-law and myself.  Sheldon has become a part of my family, which includes Brian's family.  He has been embraced by us all, and he has embraced Brian as a part of my past, and has welcomed his memory in our home.

I took Gabby back to our bedroom to show her my own wedding photo on the wall, and to tell her about my pre-Sheldon life.  It all resonated with her, and I know she won't see me differently because of this, though she knows that my life and my perspective are different than most.

There really are a lot of people out there who understand grief.  People don't tend to talk about it, or open up, but it's surprising to see how many people relate and empathize.  It feels good to be normal, whether or not that means telling my whole story.  It feels good to know that even when I do share, I am still normal.