Dave Barry

Prison is deductible

This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, April 6, 1997

It's time for my annual tax-advice column, which always draws an enthusiastic response from grateful readers.

"Dear Dave, " goes a typical letter. "Last year, following your advice, I was able to receive a large tax refund simply by claiming a $43,000 business deduction for 'paste.' I am currently chained to a wall in federal prison, but they tell me that, with good behavior, in 25 years they'll remove the skull screws. Thanks a lot!"

Yes, helping people is what this column is all about. That's why today I'm going to start by answering a question that taxpayers are constantly asking, namely: "When writing a letter to the IRS, should I use hyphens?"

Not if you can help it. I base this advice on a Washington Post news item, sent in by alert reader Bob Pack, concerning an internal memo distributed by the IRS counsel's finance and management division. This memo, according to The Post, stated that the deputy chief counsel, Marlene Gross, "does not want to receive any memorandums, letters, etc. with hyphenated words." This was followed by a second memo, which stated that Gross "does not want hyphenated words in letters, memos, unless it is at the end of the sentence."

The Post item does not say why the deputy chief counsel feels so strongly about hyphens. But it's quite common for people to develop hostility toward certain punctuation marks. I myself fly into a homicidal rage when I see business names featuring apostrophes on either side of the letter "n, " such as "The Chew 'n' Swallow Cafe." Many historians believe the 1970 U.S. invasion of Cambodia was a direct result of the fact that Richard Nixon received a memo containing a semicolon. The important thing for you, the taxpayer, to remember is that if you write a letter to the IRS finance and management division, and you MUST use a hyphen, you should place it at the end of the sentence, as shown in these two example sentences provided by the American Association Of Tax Accountants Wearing Suits:

WRONG: "You fat-heads will never catch me!"

RIGHT: "You'll never catch me, fat-heads!"

Speaking of finance and management, I have here an Associated Press story, sent in by many alert readers, concerning a congressional audit of the IRS. The key finding, according to the story, was that the IRS "cannot properly keep track of the $1.4 trillion it collects each year." Isn't that ironic, taxpayers? The IRS -- the very same agency that expects you to maintain detailed records of everything but your toenail clippings -- can't keep track of $1.4 trillion! Although I'm sure there's a good reason for this. They probably have their hands full at the IRS, what with this hyphen crisis.

But enough about punctuation. Let's answer some other common taxpayer questions, using the popular Q-and-A format.

Q. Are you saying that, as a taxpayer, I don't have to maintain detailed records of my toenail clippings?

A. Not if they account for 4.7 percent or less of your Adjusted Gross Bodily Debris, which you are of course required to report quarterly on Form 2038-YUK (not available) unless you are a single taxpayer filing jointly or vice versa, whichever comes first.

Q. Are we EVER going to have a federal tax system that regular people can understand?

A. Our top political leaders have all voiced strong support for this idea.

Q. So you're saying it will never happen?

A. Right.

Q. At 9 a.m. today, I made large cash contributions to both major political parties. As of 1:30 this afternoon, the federal government had still not enacted special tax-break legislation just for me. What kind of country is this?

A. Unfortunately, because of the high demand, the federal government can no longer provide "same-day service, " but if you do not see action by noon tomorrow, you should contact your personal congressperson; or, if you are staying in the Lincoln Bedroom, simply stomp on the floor.

Q. I have been trying without success since 1962 to get through on the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Hot Line. I understand that the IRS now also has a help site on the Internet.

A. That is correct. Now, in addition to failing to receive help by phone, taxpayers can fail to receive additional help by trying unsuccessfully to connect with the IRS World Wide Web site at http://www.bunchofletters.gov.

Q. If I could get through to that web site, what would I see?

A. Photographs of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) naked.

Q. When you write columns like this, don't you worry that the IRS is going to get ticked off and audit you with an electron microscope?

A. No, because the guys and gals at the IRS are a fun bunch, and they know I'm just kidding around. "Ha-ha, " is their reaction, unless they work in the finance and management division, where their reaction, if they know what's good for them, is "Ha ha."

(c) Dave Barry

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