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. 


  1. Wow, Wendy, what a horrible situation on top of your grief! I'm so sorry you've had to deal with it, but so glad you have the help you need. My experience highlighted to me the importance of allowing people to help you in your time of grief, and your story is a perfect example of that.

  2. I'm not sure if it's the same in the USA as it is here in the UK, but over here we can write to our MPs and they can take on specific cases and highlight them in Parliament and to the Prime Minister etc and then the Prime Minister can speak to the people at HMRC (our equivalent of the IRS) and get them to sort things out. And people listen to the Prime Minister more than they listen to people like me! Your case sounds particularly painful and traumatic so they should take it on and get something done about. Can you write to any other independent organisations that look out for general people and fight their cases with the IRS? Over here we have some of those too. xx