Death by Audit

Posted on January 13, 2012

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(The following is the 11th in my new series, “Old Posts to Dredge out on Slow Weekends Because When I Posted Them Originally People Cared More About the Economy and World Peace Than My Blog.” Although nothing has changed, it’s the start of a slow weekend, blogging-wise).

This week’s Newsweek has a really interesting articled titled, “What Should You REALLY Be Afraid Of?”  In addition to ending the title with a preposition, the article lists common fears vs reality. For example, most people fear shark attacks (there were 28 last year) over dog bites ( 4.5 million). Most people fear fatal plane crashes (there were 321 people killed last year) over fatal car crashes (34,017 killed).  You get the idea. As Newsweek says, “Much of what we worry about today is based on hype rather than reality.” Every comparison on the list compares two items in the same category. That is, until the last item: Americans fear being audited by the IRS (1.4 million) over death (US deaths 2.4 million).

This last category is interesting for several reasons, the chief of which is that Newsweek equates audit with death. The last time I looked, I didn’t notice that they were in the same category. Death is something that, with the exception of Dick Cheney, happens to everyone. Whether you are good or bad, Democrat or Republican, let people with only one item in front of you in line or ignore them as you empty your full-to-capacity shopping cart onto the conveyor belt, you can be fairly sure that your life will eventually end. Audit, on the other hand, occurs to random people, especially totally innocent people who are busy obeying the law and spreading joy and love to everyone who comes within their orbit. Like me.

My friend Susan (infamous subject of my “Sex and the Sixty Year Old” posts and others) and I sold a small speed dating company several years ago. We sold it for $35,000. We paid taxes on the sale. We were audited. During the following months that our audit process went on, we received endless correspondence from the IRS, we filled out endless forms, we gathered endless information.

The IRS provided us with a lovely Personally Appointed Audit Specialist, who was about the age of our children. She wore a tag that said “Be patient with me. I’m an IRS Trainee.” Her eyes were large, and she never blinked. She was the IRS version of the proverbial deer in the headlights. Most of our sessions consisted of her looking over our form with a very serious expression on her face that was no doubt taught to her in IRS School. Then she would ask us a simple question like, “Did you depreciate the folders you used?” and we would answer with one of the following:

“What folders?”

“What does ‘depreciate’ mean?”

“Is there a vending machine in the building?”

The high point of our ongoing interrogation sessions came when, during one such session, a fire alarm went off and the entire building had to be evacuated. It took a long time for us to get back in. I spent most of the time outside looking around to see if anyone was in handcuffs, and/or was wearing cute shoes and trying to remember all the words to “Folsom Prison Blues.” It struck me that during all of the time we were being audited, there were approximately a huge number of people making a huge of money and not paying any taxes at all and scoffing at the IRS and wearing Jimmy Choo shoes. Most of these well-dressed people were never harassed by the IRS.

One unfortunate person who actually eventually got caught was Walter Anderson, a telecommunications executive, who hid 365 million from the IRS. How does one even hide that much money?  I have a drawer where I hide money from potential intruders.  Even if I had 365 million dollars, that drawer wouldn’t be big enough.  The money would spill over into the area underneath the drawer to the cabinet where the cat sleeps. And then the money would be covered with cat hair.

Leona Helmsley, someone with about 10,000 pairs of cute shoes, never had to go through a fire drill at all.  Leona is famous for saying “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” That concerned me more than anything, as I am 5’1” tall and I am already really sensitive about height discrimination.

Eventually, Susan and I received a letter from the IRS that had a lot of words on it, some of them actually found in English language dictionaries. The rough translation of this letter was “We have no idea what to do with you so you are now free to continue to go about your business. And, by the way, you don’t owe us any money and we are sorry about the fire drill.” I could have told them that we didn’t owe them anything and saved us a lot of trouble. Then again, the lovely IRS Trainee wouldn’t have been able to practice her Concerned Knit Brow Look.

But the important thing here isn’t the audit. It’s that at no point in any of this did Susan or I ever think that the audit was the same as dying. Yet the Newsweek list started me wondering. Do people actually walk around thinking being audited is worse than death? The quote “Give me liberty or give me an audit” seems to fall a bit flat. A play titled “Audit of A Salesman” might not have the same punch. Or “As I Lay Being Audited.” I think I’ll stop here. Oh, one word of warning: If you are short, watch out.

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