First Posted: 9/10/2013
Now my advice for those who die
Declare the pennies on your eyes
‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman
The Beatles, 1966
I was dumbfounded.
On the same day that I received a refund check from Berkheimer Tax Administrator, the collector of my earned income tax, I also got a notice warning me that I had not filed my 2012 tax return.
It also informed me that I might be liable for a late filing fee of 25 bucks and could be subject to additional fees (up to 50 bucks) if they have to send me any more notices.
How could this be?
Now, I am loathe to place myself in what my wife refers to as “voice mail jail” but the notice included a number to call and I figured I’d better go ahead and call it.
On the way to the phone, however — still scratching my head in bewilderment — I examined the notice again only to discover it was not addressed to me, Edward Ackerman, at all. It was addressed to my dad, Howard Ackerman.
My dad who will be dead 19 years come December.
At that point I couldn’t dial fast enough.
Sure enough, a computer answered. And sure enough, my call was important but all operators were busy at the moment. Whenever I hear that I assume “all” operators means they employ one operator … one operator who quite understandably is busy.
But the recorded message did say I could leave a voice mail by pressing 1 and I thought, why not.
But that only got me another recorded message: the voice mail box was full.
But wait. The recorded message said because the voice mail box was full so I was being transfered to a customer service person.
Great, I thought, I’m struck in some sort of computer loop when the strangest thing happened. I heard a human voice.
“How may I direct your call?” it said.
Well, in addition to being ill prepared for a real person, I also had no idea how to answer this question. So I said just that. “I really don’t know to whom I should be directed because … ” and then I proceeded to describe the original computer response, the filled mailbox, and eventually my situation: “My dad, who is dead for almost 20 years, just got a notice that he did not file a tax return for last year.”
“We’re so sorry,” the person at the tax office said tenderly. “I have no idea how such a horrible mistake could have happened. I do hope this did not cause you any emotional pain. Seeing something addressed to your late father must be an unsettling experience.”
No, she didn’t. I made that up.
What she did say was, “Well, we just took over some accounts, so whoever collected your taxes before us must still have his name on the books.” Or something like that.
“But …” I began, intending to say, “but my dad hasn’t filed a tax return since 1994 because, you know, he’s dead, and this is the first time in all those years I received one of these.”
But I didn’t say that. I didn’t say it, because the woman interrupted me with, “What school district do you live in?”
“Pittston Area,” I said, finally understanding all she wanted out of me was straight answers.
“Well, that’s it,” she responded. “They must have still had his name on file.”
By “they” I’m pretty sure she meant not Pittston Area school district but the previous tax collector.
She then told me I had two options. I could write deceased on the form and send it back or I could send in an email letting them know he’s dead. She did not ask for a death certificate, but I would not be shocked if it comes to that.
Now, I’m not saying I was an emotional wreck over seeing my dad’s name on this tax notice. I mean, I know he’s gone. In fact, save perhaps for my brothers and sister and maybe his grandchildren, no one knows he’s gone more than I. I think about him every day and talk to him almost as often.
So the notice did not reduce me to tears. But was a little courtesy on the phone too much to ask?
What leaves me with my head shaking is that in this day of mega computers and the world wide web, I long ago accepted there’s no such thing as privacy. I feel naked before the world. Is there a computer that does not know everything about me? Not record my every move? If I use a credit card to purchase a meal in Butte, Montana, sure as shootin’ before 24 hours go by I’ll be getting emails from every restaurant west of the Mississippi.
But the computers don’t tell each other when someone dies?
So, as soon as I finish writing this I will take a moment and send that email to the taxman letting him know he can scratch my dad’s name off his list. I will probably feel a little sad doing that, but at least no one there will ever again have to throw the old tax collector under the bus on my account. I think my dad would like that.
You know, a running joke in politics around these parts is that Pittston is a town where the dead vote in elections. That’s not true. But they might have to file tax returns.