Call Me Tax Dad

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    I have my #2 pencil. Here is the calculator with the enormous number pad. All my forms, receipts, and financial statements are neatly stacked in front of me. Time now to engage in that sacred, annual ritual. I am doing the taxes. And I am driving my family crazy.

    Don’t get the idea that tax season is my special time to whine and complain. I’m not sulking or pouting or brooding. The truth is, I actually enjoy completing the tax return each year.

    It might sound strange, but I like making the pilgrimage to the library to load up on multiple copies of all the oddball forms I’ll need. I look forward to opening up my big manila file folder – first cousin to the proverbial shoebox – and dumping a year’s worth of papers out onto my desk. And there’s something about taping all those notes, reminders, and instructions to the wall that makes me feel like an astronaut buckled into a space shuttle ready to blast off.

    To me, the tax return is always more than just a sober civic duty. It’s a chance to take stock of the entire calendar year. Or maybe I just take a bit of secret pride in knowing I can thumb my nose at all that tax-preparation software and still grind the whole thing out by hand. But I have to admit: It doesn’t take long before I start driving my wife and children up the wall.

    As my family knows only too well, I can turn even the most mundane mathematical exercise into high drama. “You’d think we were Donald Trump, buying and selling multinational corporations,” my wife says. “But we’re just two people working.” You like to make the taxes complicated, she tells me. You like to work yourself into a frenzy of governmental accountability. And you like to play the martyr who would never dream of hiring an accountant to help. She thinks back to her single days when it took no more than three minutes to slot her salary onto one short line of
    the “EZ” form and be done with it all.

    “Then I married you,” she says.

    Oh really? By “you” I believe you’re talking about the “head of household,” as the IRS prefers to think of me. Here, at the top of Form 1040, the government has already begun stoking my ego by letting me rack up everyone in the family – me included – as “exemptions,” though exactly what we’re all exempted from I don’t really know. And yes, even though we are “married filing jointly,” I suppose I take some devilish glee in seeing that the mother of my children and love of nearly twenty years is relegated – in the eyes of the feds at least – to the status of mere “spouse.”

    Down, down I go, into the thicket of income declarations, adjustments, deductions, and credits. The IRS says it’s okay to round my math off to whole dollars, but I’m determined to calculate everything down to the last cent. Soon comes the moment where I really love to hug my kids, for they are, blessedly, still young enough to count as “qualifying persons” who help me snag dependent care expense deductions as well as a
    child tax credit.

    The children don’t know it, but they even help plump up the numbers farther along in the return, where my campaign to claim “noncash charitable contributions” always turns the house upside down each December. I tear through the closets, toy boxes, and basement in search of items to donate just before the year comes to an end. I even spirit everything out of the house under cover of darkness so the kids won’t know what’s gone. Farewell, porcelain child’s memento heart box. So long, all forty-two boys’ t-shirts. Good luck, Laura Ashley crib set (including bumper, sheets, dust ruffle, and comforter) stored up in the attic. I’ll see you all again soon – on Form 8283.

    As the calculations mount, I begin to hijack every dinner table conversation with talk of how I think the tax code reads like great literature. The children stare blankly as I inform them that you can indeed deduct the costs of cleaning and laundry when you travel away from home for business purposes. But did you know that you may not deduct expenses for travel meals that are lavish or extravagant (except under certain circumstances)? And no, you can’t deduct the cost of a wristwatch, even if there is a job requirement that you know the correct time to properly perform your duties.

    At its most poetic, my tax return crowns me keeper of rules, conqueror of computations, and king of a vast, financial empire. But I suppose my wife is right. I don’t have any personal use of a dwelling unit that I also rent. I haven’t been doing any bartering that I can recall. And I haven’t accepted any bribes, kickbacks, side commissions, or push money (whatever that is).

    I don’t believe I’ve suddenly become an “S” corporation, partnership, or pass-through entity. I haven’t won a prize in a lucky number drawing, television or radio quiz program, or beauty contest. And I’m not a member of a qualified Indian tribe that has fishing rights secured by treaty, executive order, or Act of Congress – though I’m starting to think I might like to be (imagine the trout!). I can’t remember the last time anyone offered me a tip.

    No, I’m just an average dad with everyday expenses and claims. But as I sign the return and verify – under penalty of perjury – that all schedules and statements are true, correct, and complete, I glance at the line reserved for a “paid preparer’s” signature and laugh. For I have seen the grizzled, exhausted, bug-eyed face of the seasoned tax professional. And it is mine.