hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

March 28, 2012

Poor Tom's Almanac: Sweating out another IRS season

Tom Vartabedian

I measure out my life by five seasons. We have the usual four. Add another. A season to file my tax returns and sweat out the protocol.

I'm a complete ninny when it comes to forms. My CPA has been my best friend for as long as I've dealt with the IRS. Could be that I don't trust myself with all that rigmarole. A better reason is that he might take the hit if something runs afoul.

Two years ago, I got the letter no one wants to receive. It came from the IRS, informing me that I owned $900. Wait a minute here! Didn't I just send them a check?

So I called my accountant. I'm at an impasse and so is he. Go to the bank. See if the check has been cashed. Get a copy of the receipt. Mail that as proof.

"But keep in mind that it might take weeks before they respond," he cautioned. "They may be light years behind in their paperwork."

If that's the case, how come they responded so quickly over what they believed was a delinquent payment?

Yes, the check had been received. And yes, it had been cashed. I sent in the receipt and never heard another thing. But they did give me the shakes for a bit.

Another time, I received a letter from the IRS and guess what? Inside was a check with a letter telling me that I had overpaid when I thought I was being audited. Not that I had anything to hide. But the more I've dealt with the government, the better I've come to realize they tax your brains more than they tax your income.

A lot of this grief has to do with my conscience. How much do I deduct for charity? What should I include on the medical side? Prescriptions? An eye exam? A dental cleaning?

As good as I am at keeping records, I cannot account for every itty-bitty thing that leaves my wallet. It probably adds up to a bundle if you counted things like the church collection and the contributions you've given to the Native Americans of Colorado.

And every year, new rules and regulations make it that much more complicated. You want to comply with the law, but all the legalese tends to rattle your senses. I'd rather have a root canal than an extraction in my income.

I'm one of those hoarders who have paperwork and records going back seven years. One tells me to hold on to every receipt from that time in case there are questions. Another says five years. Some other presumed authority tells you three years is sufficient.

I'm afraid that all this paperwork could combust into a fire and burn my house down. Despite all the attempts to scale down, I only add to the load. And not once was I put on the hot seat. Maybe some IRS official will read this column and light a match. You won't get much out of me, pal.

I almost became an accountant. It's true. I did well in a high school accounting class and decided this was a career I wouldn't mind entertaining. Matter of fact, I enrolled in Boston University as an accounting major way back when. I could have been figuring out your tax returns instead of writing a column about this very subject.

What they didn't tell me was that the major didn't kick in until my junior year. And when it did, the whole idea was a disaster. I remember sitting there taking my exam when I recanted. This wasn't for me. I handed back a blank test and switched my career choice to journalism. True story.

Had all proceeded as planned, my youngest son could have done my taxes and saved me a bundle in fees. He went to Bentley and majored in accounting. Once his junior year arrived and the foot hit the accelerator, he, too, had misgivings.

He came home one day plagued with anxiety. I thought the kid flunked out or something. That's when he broke the news.

"Dad, I changed my major."

"What?" I said, falling off my chair.

"I switched to marketing. You always said you wanted me to be happy. My guidance counselor worked with me on a new plan."

The kid wound up getting a job with Fidelity handling their retirement accounts and helps to bring millions of dollars into the company. The world is his oyster now.

My fifth season ends every April 15. Not that I wait until then to file my returns. But like every season, there must be a reason ... and I look forward to that date with a sigh of relief.

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Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.