Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Different, But Thanksgiving Nonetheless 

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. For as long as I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been sharing a Thanksgiving post to express my gratitude for a variety of people, events, and things. Aside from 2008, when I did not post and I don’t have any recollection of why or how that happened, I’ve dedicated a post on or around Thanksgiving. I started in 2004, with Giving Thanks, and continued in 2005 with A Tax Thanksgiving, in 2006 with Giving Thanks, Again, in 2007 with Actio Gratiarum, in 2009 with Gratias Vectigalibus, in 2010 with Being Thankful for User Fees and Taxes, in 2011 with Two Short Words, Thank You, in 2012 with A Thanksgiving Litany, in 2013 with “Don’t Forget to Say Thank-You”, in 2014 with Giving Thanks: “No, Thank YOU!” , in 2015 with Thanks Again!, in 2016 with Thankfully Repetitive, in 2017 with Never-Ending Thanks, in 2018 with Particularly Thankful This Time Around, and in 2019 with Quest'anno è il Ringraziamento.

As I stated the past seven years, “I have presented litanies, bursts of Latin, descriptions of events and experiences for which I have been thankful, names of people and groups for whom I have appreciation, and situations for which I have offered gratitude. Together, these separate lists become a long catalog, and as I have done in previous years, I will do a lawyerly thing and incorporate them by reference. Why? Because I continue to be thankful for past blessings, and because some of those appreciated things continue even to this day.” When I re-read those lists, I realized that the people, events, and things for which I am appreciative are far from obsolete.

So once again I will look back at the past twelve months, and remember the people, events, and things for whom and for which I give thanks. If some of these seem repetitive, they are, for there are gifts in life that keep on giving:

Fourteen years ago, in Giving Thanks, Again, I shared my Thanksgiving advice. I liked it so much that I repeated it again, in 2009 in Gratias Vectigalibus, yet again in 2013 in “Don’t Forget to Say Thank-You”, still again in 2014 in Giving Thanks: “No, Thank YOU!” , even yet again in 2015 in Thanks Again!, even still again in Thankfully Repetitive, yet once more in Never-Ending Thanks, yet even once more in . Particularly Thankful This Time Around, and last year in Quest'anno è il Ringraziamento. For me, it does not lose its impact:
Have a Happy Thanksgiving. Set aside the hustle and bustle of life. Meet up with people who matter to you. Share your stories. Enjoy a good meal. Tell jokes. Sing. Laugh. Watch a parade or a football game, or both, or many. Pitch in. Carve the turkey. Wash some dishes. Help a little kid cut a piece of pie. Go outside and take a deep breath. Stare at the sky for a minute. Listen for the birds. Count the stars. Then go back inside and have seconds or thirds. Record the day in memory, so that you can retrieve it in several months when you need some strength.
I am thankful to have the opportunity to share those words yet again. And I am thankful that even in a pandemic Thanksgiving it is possible for some of us to do all of those things, and for others of us to most of those things.

Monday, November 23, 2020

So It’s Not a Tax Case But It’s a Great One 

When I write about a television court show, I react to episodes that involve tax in some way or at least have some sort of tax angle. This time the America’s Court episode did not involve tax. Nor did it involve the First Amendment, legal education, music, model trains, chocolate chip cookies, genealogy. Perhaps, of all the things I profess to write about, at least occasionally, it involves, in some remote way, religion and theology. As in, perhaps, don’t do this.

The plaintiff, Samantha, began with the following story. She had been dating the defendant, Paul. She let Paul use her car while she was out of town. She returned to discover that Paul had been in an accident with the car, and that the car had been damaged. Her insurance paid for the repairs except for a $1,000 deductible that the plaintiff had to pay. Samantha and Paul agreed that Paul would pay half of the deductible, $500, to the plaintiff. Paul had not yet paid $500 to the plaintiff. The plaintiff then learned additional information that caused her to decide to sue Paul for the entire deductible.

The defendant began his story with an attempt to butter up the judge by saying, “Just as I am all about hustle and grind I appreciate the hustle and grind you bring to your courtroom.”

It gets better.

The judge asked Samantha, the plaintiff, “You agreed to $500, so why are you now suing for $1,000?”

Samantha replied, “I would like to introduce my witness, Miss Bennett, a friend.” The judge swore in Miss Bennett, and asked, “What’s your role in this case?”

Miss Elliott explained, “Samantha and I met several years ago on a shoot. We became friends. We are busy so we don’t see each other often. When we got together, she told me she had been dating a guy named Paul who had four kids, but things went bad when he borrowed her car and had an accident. So I said to Samantha, ‘Wait, I was on a date with a guy named Paul who has four kids and when I was with him on a date we were in an accident.’ Samantha took out her phone, and showed me a photo of Paul, and it was the same guy!”

The judge asked, “The defendant here, Paul?”

Miss Elliott replied, “Yes.”

The judge turned to the defendant Paul and asked, “You have four children?”

Paul replied, “Yes.”

The judge asked, “You see to it they are cared for, have what they need?”

Paul again replied, “Yes.”

The judge then asked Paul, “All with one woman?”

Paul replied, “No, four different women.”

The judge turned to Paul and remarked, “Mr. [can’t remember Paul’s last name], perhaps it is time to cool down your hustle and grind!”

The judge continued by asking Paul, “So what defense do you have, if any, to the plaintiff’s claim to the full deductible?”

Paul replied, “When the accident happened, I was running errands for the plaintiff.”

The judge asked, “Is Miss Elliott an errand?” Laughter erupted among the spectators the courtroom.

The judge concluded by saying, “I’ve heard enough. Judgment of $1,000 for the plaintiff.”

Perhaps stories like this are far more common than I am imagining. Yes, I’ve heard and read stories about two women discovering they are dating the same guy, or two guys discovering they are dating the same woman, but never in the context of one woman suing the guy and then having the other woman be the witness in litigation whose testimony makes the plaintiff’s case.

And the idea that the defendant considered dating the plaintiff’s friend to be running an errand for the plaintiff is just totally preposterous. And hilarious. I suppose if the defendant had taken on a date someone who was a stranger to the plaintiff, whose presence in the vehicle was demonstrated by a photo or a police report, and who was not in the courtroom, he would have come up with some excuse along the lines of just giving a friend a ride. Sure.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Another Tax Proposal That’s Off the Mark 

Not long after I had written Monday’s commentary, A Tax Proposal That Misses the Mark, but before it published, reader Morris shared with me his discovery of the very same proposal. The proposal, offered by Deutsche Bank, was a 5 percent tax on the “privilege” of working from home. In my commentary I explained why the idea wasn’t a good one.

Not long after my Monday commentary appeared, reader Morris alerted me to another Deutsche Bank tax proposal. This one, too, is deeply flawed.

The proposal is to impose a special tax on homes, stocks, and bonds when sold by “baby boomers.” The goal of the tax is to “narrow the millennial-boomer generational wealth gap.” The proposal claims to not be an “age-related tax,” but instead suggests taxing transactions that generate gains reflecting “luck and external forces.” The report identifies five areas that have created “luck and external forces” generating boomer wealth: “low interest rates, urbanization, pollution, cohort size, and education.” The report claims that boomers have benefitted from increased asset value due to low interest rates and inflated housing prices. The report notes that boomers did not pay as much for education as millennials do, nor will they bear the cost of environmental damage caused by “carbon emission-releasing companies in which they’ve invested.” The report also claims that the baby boomer generation “wins elections” because it is “larger in size,” but millennials as a group outnumber boomers though boomers vote at a higher rate.

There is no doubt that, as the report notes, the generational wealth gap is stark. The report, however, fails to identify the real reason that the gap exists. It exists because the oligarchs have been shifting into their own pockets income that in the pre-1980 economy would have flowed into the wallets of younger workers. One great example of this factor is the stagnation of the minimum wage, despite very recent efforts to fix that situation. Attempts to increase the minimum wage are met with objections from the oligarchs who claim that increased wages will require cutting jobs because the idea of cutting executive salaries and plowing profits into salaries rather than stock buy-backs is repugnant to those who fear trying to live on $5,000,000 a year instead of $6,000,000 a year would present insurmountable challenges. The report acknowledges that using constant dollars, millennials are paid 20 percent less than boomers did when boomers were the age millennials are now.

The basic flaw in the proposal is that it fails to focus on wealth even though wealth disparity is what it claims to be trying to fix. Why should age or generation have anything to do with fixing wealth gaps? Why should a middle class older person whose only significant asset is a residence pay a special tax when selling the residence in order to fund relocation to a retirement community or nursing home while young multi-millionaires and billionaires play games with private equity investments and dabble in the stock market, making even more income and further widening gaps?

Solving the wealth gap requires altering the income flows that exacerbate the gap. The gap grows because wealthy individuals and gigantic domestic and multinational businesses keep buying more and more tax breaks. The gap grows exponentially because of compounding.

The flawed reasoning is evident in the report, despite claiming not to advocate an age-based tax, suggests “a tax on baby boomers.” It states that "Younger generations have been hit particularly hard while older folk have reaped the benefits," but fails to recognize that there are impoverished boomers and wealthy millennials. It fails to understand that fixing a wealth gap requires a focus on wealth, regardless of age. There are studies indicating that taller people earn more money. Should there be a tax on tall people? Even tall people who aren’t making as much money as some not-so-tall people do? Measuring wealth and income is a matter of dollars (or marks or euros) and not a matter of inches or the number of years a person has been alive.

The report actually suggest several taxes. It suggests a tax on the profit from selling a house. I’ve already explained why that is a foolish idea. It proposes a tax on the purchase of a house. What impact would that have on the housing market and the housing construction industry? Would it be more likely to prevent a wealthy person or a struggling middle class family from buying a house? It proposes “additional taxes” on the sale of stocks and bonds “as boomers begin to sell those assets?” Why should a younger multi-millionaire making money in the stock market escape such a tax while an older person liquidating a much smaller nest egg be hit with it? Why not base the tax on the amount of the profit regardless of the person’s age? The report suggests a “super tax” on stocks to compensate for gains companies make on pollution. If taxing a company’s stock, rather than its profit attributable to cost reductions based on neglect of environmental responsibility, or a carbon tax measured in some other way, is the best way to deal with pollution, so be it, but it ought have nothing to do with the age of the investor, the CEO, the employees, the lawyers, or anyone else involved in the violation of environmental regulations or the repeal of those regulations in attempts to increase even more the wealth of oligarchs.

The report admits that these taxes are suggested in order to prevent raising income taxes because increased income taxes would “be an invasion on hard work.” Nonsense. Most jobs requiring “hard work” are low-paying jobs, and income tax rates on low-income individuals should be low and kept low. The notion that billionaires and oligarchs are “hard workers” is questionable. Certainly trust fund babies and wealthy individuals who have never held a job aren’t working hard in the sense of the hard work done by people who live hard work every day. The report worries that raising income taxes would disincentivize work, but hungry people must find work and do work in order to live, whereas very few oligarchs and trust fund babies are going to quit jobs because of higher income taxes because they either have no jobs to quit or engage in entrepreneurship because it’s their fun and hobby thing to do.

As I pointed out in A Tax Proposal That Misses the Mark, a better proposal would be to cut “the extravagant salaries of high-income employees where the ratio of top salary to bottom salary in a company exceeds what it was when the economy was in better condition.” In some ways, the boomer tax proposal, like the work-from-home proposal, “is both a distraction from the need to re-align compensation arrays as well as a reminder that existing compensation arrays are a major ingredient for current economic distress, worker unrest, fiscal problems, and political turmoil.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Another Tax and Genealogy Story 

Last Friday, in Taking a Walk and Thinking About Genealogy and Tax, I shared a portion of the much longer story about the Maule family and Radnor Township, then in Chester County, now in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. I focused on the connections between tax and the history of the family in Radnor. Those, however, were not the only connections, though this next one is somewhat attenuated.

In 1988, five years after I returned to Villanova to teach primarily tax courses, in both the J.D. and LL.M. (Taxation) programs, the founding director of the Graduate Tax Program decided to step down and return to full-time teaching. That’s when Michael Mulroney became director of the program. His office was across from mine, we worked together on various aspects of the program, and as I got to know him I learned that one of his sons is Dermot Mulroney. From time to time Michael would mention that Dermot had been in, was in, or was going to be in a movie or television show. One evening, back when I subscribed to the weekly print TV Guide, I was scanning the evening’s programs to see if there was anything worth watching, and I noticed Dermot Mulroney’s name. One of the local channels was airing a movie made several years earlier in which Dermot was the first-named cast member. So I decided to watch. The name of the movie, Sin of Innocence did not deter me. So that’s the tax part of today’s post.

As I watched the movie, my first reaction, perhaps attributable to my upbringing, was along the lines of “Really?” Why that reaction? The plot of the movie builds on the marriage of a widower and a divorcee. The widower’s son and the divorcee’s daughter, both teenagers, become romantically involved. The widower and divorcee are uncomfortable with the situation and the divorcee’s former spouse, father of the daughter, is livid. My thought, “well, isn’t this a fine mess?” did not linger long as I realized that one of the sons of Thomas Maule of Radnor, the one from whom I descend, married his step-sister, and one of their children is my great-great-great-great-grandfather. Of course, the next time I saw Michael Mulroney, I told him I had finally watched a movie in which his son appeared, and told him that it wasn’t a far-fetched plot because of my step-sibling ancestors. Now to the genealogy part of today’s post.

Thomas Maule of Radnor, born in Salem, Massachusetts, came to Philadelphia with his widowed mother. He married, had four children, three of whom died as very young children, and then re-married, to Zillah Walker of the Great Valley. That’s another story I probably should tell, and perhaps I will, but not today. Thomas and Zillah lived in Philadelphia for three years, but then moved to Radnor Township, close to where Zillah and most of the Walker family lived, though they lived “over the hill” in what is now Tredyffrin Township. Thomas and Zillah had seven boys. About a year after the youngest boy was born, Thomas died, leaving Zillah with seven sons ranging in age from one year to eleven years. The fourth child of Thomas Maule of Radnor’s first marriage had died in Radnor at age 14.

Two years after Thomas died, Zillah remarried. She married Joshua Brown, who lived in Little Britain Township, Lancaster County, near the border with Chester County. Joshua was a widower, with nine young children. How did a widow from Radnor Township meet a widower from Little Britain Township, two places that are 43 miles apart as the crow flies, and roughly 54 miles apart using today’s roads? It is believed that Joshua Brown, a renowned minister of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), had stayed at the house of Daniel Walker, Zillah’s father, on one of his preaching journeys, and that while he was there he met Zillah.

When Zillah married Joshua Brown, she and her seven sons moved from Radnor Township to Little Britain. She rented out the farm, and eventually several of the sons would return to the farm and to adjacent properties in Radnor Township. Yes, that’s another story, or perhaps several stories. The pamphlet I mentioned in last Friday’s post, the one written for and funded by my great-great-great grandfather William Maule (grandson of the two step-siblings who married), says this about Joshua Brown (erroneously described in the pamphlet as Jeremiah Brown, father of Joshua) and Zillah Walker, widow of Thomas Maule of Radnor: “They had one daughter after their second marriage, making in all eighteen children, who all sat down at one table in the house of Jeremiah, at Little Britain.” The pamphlet is wrong when it states they had one daughter, because they had two. As many in the family have remarked, it must have been a very big table. And imagine cooking meals every day for 20 people.

The pamphlet continues: “Daniel Maule (one of the sons of Thomas and Zillah,) married Hannah Brown, one of the daughters of Jeremiah [sic] Brown, by his first wife.) There was no blood kin, although when their parents married a second time, they lived together and ate at the same table.” My guess is that the pamphlet writer relied on stories passed down orally, and that, as often is the case, someone confused names and mis-identified Joshua Brown, and forgot about the second child of Joshua and Zillah. So I doubt the pamphlet writer researched, or even had access to, the Quaker records I studied when I “updated” the pamphlet. What is more understandable is that the pamphlet writer would not have had the resources to determine that Hannah Brown and Daniel Maule, the step-siblings, were, among other things, 24th cousins because they both descend from Roger I of Sicily, 19th cousins once removed because they both descend from Friedrich III “Barbarossa” and Beatrix of Burgundy (Macon), 23rd cousins twice removed because they both descend from Alfonso VI “The Valiant,” 19th cousins once removed because they both descend from Alfonso VIII Sanchez, 19th cousins because they both descend from Alfonso IX Fernandez and Berengaria of Castile, 23rd cousins because they both descend from Ionnes (John) Komnenos and Anna Dalassena, 22nd cousins once removed because they both descend from Sophia of Hungary, 21st cousins because they both descend from Henry of Huntingdon and Ada De Warenne, 24th cousins because they both descend from Giselbert de Luxembourg, 23rd cousins twice removed because they both descend from Gui I De Montlhery and Hodierne De Gometz, 19th cousins once removed because they both descend from Henry II Plantagenet and Eleonore D’Aquitaine et Poitou, 14th cousins 3 times removed because they both descend from Edward I Plantagenet and Eleanor of Castile, and 138 other cousin relationships. The software needs 538 pages to enumerate and show the links. The shared ancestors lived in what is now Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Greece, Turkey, Albania, Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the list could continue.

How surprising is it to discover that two people are related 150 different ways? To many people, very surprising. To genealogists and historians, not surprising at all. Consider connections at the 20th cousin level, 22 generations ago. A person has 2,097,152 ancestral “slots” in that generation, and, of course, many of those slots are filled by the same individuals so that there are far fewer than 2,097,152 individuals in that generation of a person’s ancestry. But even if there are only several hundred thousand individuals in that generation, it would not at all be unusual for any two people to share 300 of them as ancestors.

And to think that some folks were upset that step-siblings were romantically involved. Or married.

Monday, November 16, 2020

A Tax Proposal That Misses the Mark 

The headline probably will get twisted into a social media meme, but understandably so. When I read the headline to this report, the word “huh?” popped into my brain. The headline? “Deutsche Bank researchers call for a 5% 'privilege' tax on people choosing to work from home, with the money given to low-income staff”.

Of course, I didn’t stop there as some would. I read the details. First, the proposal would only apply to individuals whose employers offer them “permanent desks” at the workplace, so it would not apply to employees compelled to work at home. In other words, the tax would target those who could go to the office but choose not to do so. Second, the tax would not apply to self-employed individuals, nor would it apply to “low-paid staff.” Third, the tax would not apply if the government advises people to work from home.

The bank rationalized that people who work at home can afford to pay the tax because they would be spending less on “travel, food, and clothes” by working at home. That, of course, is an oversimplification. Yes, people working from home eliminate the cost of travel to the office, but that cost can range from very low if the office is nearby to rather high if the office is in a more distant location. Food costs, though, very easily could be the same because there are employees who pack their own lunches and thus are paying the same for their meal regardless of where they eat it. As for clothes, it depends on the job, because people who work from home but who must use videoconferencing to perform their duties must dress in the same way if they are expected to act and appear professional.

The bank noted that even after the pandemic ends more employees will be working remotely than before the pandemic. The bank refers to working from home as a “privilege.” It claims that people working from home “have gained many benefits, . . . such as convenience and flexibility.” Tell that to the people who are working from home while trying to help their children navigate remote learning. Tell that to the people who have had to re-purpose a living room or dining room to serve as an office. Tell that to the people who are working from home because a child is sick, or because the employee is too sick to go to an office and spread germs but who can manage to get some work done at home.

The bank claims that people working from home “are contributing less to the infrastructure of the economy while still receiving its benefits.” Clearly the bank failed to take into account the contribution to the environment by the elimination of pollution that would be caused by the employee’s use of a vehicle to commute. Clearly the bank failed to take into account the contribution of the work-at-home employee to the reduction of traffic congestion by not participating in rush hour commuting. Clearly the bank failed to take into account the fact that the employee would still direct net income to the purchase of goods and services, or investments in turn used to finance lending.

The bank justifies the proposal by pointing to the amount of revenue it could raise, and suggesting that the proceeds should be “used to support people on low incomes who cannot do their jobs remotely.” Of course it makes sense to increase the wages of underpaid low-income workers. But why do that by imposing the funding on employees whose wages might not be very much higher? If the response is that the tax would also fall on high-income employees, is that not support for a better proposal, which is cutting the extravagant salaries of high-income employees where the ratio of top salary to bottom salary in a company exceeds what it was when the economy was in better condition? In some ways, the proposal is both a distraction from the need to re-align compensation arrays as well as a reminder that existing compensation arrays are a major ingredient for current economic distress, worker unrest, fiscal problems, and political turmoil.

I should note that I have no horse in this race. The work I have done at home over the years was work as a self-employed writer and consultant. The work I have done as an employee has been done principally at the school, with three small exceptions. One, I am teaching at home because the university wants me to do that, and as soon as things revert to pre-pandemic conditions, I will return to the school to teach, assuming they still want me and my body and brain are still functioning well enough. Two, if I get an email from a student when I am at home, I will take a few minutes to read and answer it. Three, I have always found myself, while at home doing something mindless, thinking about my courses, curriculum, topics, and other things related to my teaching. So this proposed tax is not one, if adopted, that would affect me. It simply is an idea that highlights a problem but does not provide a solution because it rests on very shaky rationales and fails to take into account the entire picture of people working at home.

P.S. I wonder if anyone catches what I did with the title to this post in light of the source of the proposal. It wasn’t intentional. I noticed it after I started writing. That’s how bad it sometimes gets.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Taking a Walk and Thinking About Genealogy and Tax 

When I started this blog many years ago, I described it as “Prof. James Edward Maule's more than occasional commentary on tax law, legal education, the First Amendment, religion, and law generally, with sporadic attempts to connect all of this to genealogy, theology, music, model trains, and chocolate chip cookies.” Only on a few occasions have I written about connections between tax with genealogy. Nine years ago, in a series of posts, I described instances in which descendants of Thomas Maule of Salem, Mass., were involved in taxation as a tax reforming legislator (Taxation and the Descendants of Thomas Maule of Salem, Mass., Part I), as an IRS official and Treasury official (Taxation and the Descendants of Thomas Maule of Salem, Mass., Part II), as employees of IRS predecessor agencies (Taxation and the Descendants of Thomas Maule of Salem, Mass., Part III), as employees of the IRS (Taxation and the Descendants of Thomas Maule of Salem, Mass., Part IV), as local tax officials (Taxation and the Descendants of Thomas Maule of Salem, Mass., Part V), as members of local tax boards (Taxation and the Descendants of Thomas Maule of Salem, Mass., Part VI), as tax accountants (Taxation and the Descendants of Thomas Maule of Salem, Mass., Part VII), as a tax return prepare (Taxation and the Descendants of Thomas Maule of Salem, Mass., Part VIII), as members of the single tax movement (Taxation and the Descendants of Thomas Maule of Salem, Mass., Part IX), and as owner of an interest in a trust that was the subject of a tax case decided by the Supreme Court (Taxation and the Descendants of Thomas Maule of Salem, Mass., Part X).

Today I share a long story about my family history research in which tax sits on the periphery. What brought this story to mind was a thought that popped into my head during my walk the other day. Usually I walk in my neighborhood, because going outside of the neighborhood requires either walking on one of two heavily traveled roads or driving somewhere to walk in a park or on a trail. So the other day I realized I could walk in another neighborhood by walking for a hundred feet along one of those major roads. The other neighborhood is simply a dead-end road with several houses, but it provides a change of scenery. As I walked I thought to myself, “I’ve been here before. Oh, wait. Conrad Wilson lived in one of these houses.” Who is Conrad Wilson? Now to the story.

My interest in family history was sparked by a pamphlet supposedly written by my great-great-great grandfather William Maule, though decades later I learned that he funded the research and publication of the pamphlet but did not write what was in it. My father read that pamphlet to us after dinner for several nights in a row when I was about 12 years old. When I finally started digging into genealogy ten years later I was puzzled by a reference to where Thomas Maule of Radnor lived. Thomas Maule of Radnor, a son of Thomas Maule of Salem, Massachusetts, though erroneously described in the pamphlet as his grandson, came to Philadelphia with his widowed mother, married, had four children, and after his wife died, remarried, to Zillah Walker, and had seven sons. When he remarried, it was to a woman from the “Great Valley,” which today includes parts of Upper and Lower Merion Townships, Radnor Township, Tredyffrin Township, and several others further west. After their marriage, Thomas and Zillah moved to the Great Valley. The pamphlet described the location of their home as “within a few yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad, about one mile east of the Eagle Station, and directly between the Railroad and Lancaster turnpike.” It also stated that the “venerable mansion which he erected 120 years ago is still standing in a state of good preservation.” Though by the time I started researching, the pamphlet was 110 years old, I wondered if their house was still standing. In these days before google maps, I could not figure out the location, so I wrote a letter to the Radnor Historical Society. Several weeks later I received a reply from Katy Cummin, a member of the Society and, it turned out, the author of “A Rare and Pleasing Thing: Radnor Demography (1798) and Development”, which had been published several months earlier. Her book analyzes the ownership and genealogies of the owners’ families, of each property enumerated in the 1798 property census taken for purposes of the unsuccessful Federal Direct Tax, which measured value by the number and size of windows. See the connection?

Katy invited me, on my next visit home, to accompany her to the site of the Thomas Maule – Zillah Walker home. So on my next trip home, I met her, she took me not only to see where the Thomas Maule home had been – more on that in a moment – but also to see the still-standing home of his son Jacob Maule, the location of where the home of Daniel Maule, another son of Thomas Maule and my 5-great-grandfather, had been located, the location of where the widow of Thomas Maule’s son John had lived, along with several other significant Radnor properties.

She then took me to the home of Conrad Wilson, another member of the Radnor Historical Society. He had a copy of my still-in-draft-form manuscript that became my 1981 now-out-of-print and unavailable ”The History and Genealogy of the Maules”, now in updated form at my family history web site. He had the copy because I had sent a copy to Katy after I had received her letter and by the time I made my visit, a month or so later, she had shared it with other members of the Society at my request. I remember walking into Conrad’s home and thinking, “This guy is definitely into books,” as every wall in the house seemed to be filled with bookshelves crammed with books, not unlike what is now in my house. I remember Conrad telling me, “I can fill in some of the branches in your family that apparently you’ve not yet found.”

And, of course, remembering my visit and tour of Radnor, I recalled my surprise when Katy showed me where the Thomas Maule house had been located. It was in the center of what is now the town of Wayne. I realized that when in college and working for H&R Block in Wayne, I was working as a tax return preparer in a building located on what was my 6-great-grandparents’ farm. See? A second connection! The house, which had been demolished, had served for some time as the manse of Wayne Presbyterian Church. Decades later, after learning that several law school colleagues sang in an Oratorio Society based at the church, and being encouraged by several choir members at my church who where in that Oratorio Society to attend a concert, I met the director at the time, and when I noted that the Church was built on the farm of Thomas Maule and Zillah Walker, he pointed out that he, too, was a Walker descendant. We figured we are about fifth cousins.

As for the other Maule properties, the still-standing house owned and expanded by Jacob Maule (brother of my 5-great-grandfather Daniel Maule) is one-half mile away as the crow flies. The house in which the widow of John Maule (another brother of Daniel) lived was located about 1,200 feet from my house as the crow flies. Daniel Maule’s farm, adjacent to his father Thomas Maule’s farm, is about a mile from my house. And Wayne is about 2 miles from my house as the crow flies.

So even while taking walks, genealogy and tax continue to wander around my brain. And then the story ideas percolate.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The List of What Not to Do As a Tax Collector Has Become Even Longer 

In a series of posts about the former Seminole County, Florida, Tax Collector, starting with A Reason Not to Run for Tax Collector (or Any Other Office)?, and continuing through Perhaps Yet Another Reason Not to Run for Tax Collector, Running for Tax Collector (or Any Other Office)? Don’t Do These Things, When Behaving Badly as a Tax Collector Gets Even Worse, Tax Collector Behaving Badly: From Even Worse to Even More Than Even Worse, What Qualifications Are Needed to Be a Tax Collector?, The Legacy of Misbehaving Tax Collectors, and Lengthening the List of What Not to Do As a Tax Collector, I reviewed the still-developing story about his alleged misdeeds while in office. Claims against him include stalking and impersonating a political opponent, impersonating a student, manufacturing fake IDs using information from drivers’ licenses surrendered to his office, sex trafficking a minor using information accessed through his office, spending public funds on a private enterprise he had formed, openly carrying firearms while wrongly claiming to be a revenue officer, making a traffic stop while driving his personal vehicle, and trying to produce fake concealed weapons permits. He also settled lawsuits brought by employees who alleged sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and First Amendment violations. As the allegations piled up, he resigned his office.

Reader Morris is as interested as I am in the activities of this former Seminole County tax collector. I should ask him if he thinks that at some point this guy’s story should be made into a movie. The chances have increased with two more things to add to the list, both brought to my attention by reader Morris.

The first story, from January of this year, describes allegations that the former tax collector asked one of his friends to attack the county’s computers and demand a half-million dollar ransom. The evidence behind the allegations comes from a network security specialist who had a contract with the former tax collector while the tax collector was still in office. Though the security specialist told his story to Florida authorities, they refrained from investigating because they considered it a case of one person’s word against another. Of course, the former tax collector denied the allegations, and countered with allegations that the security specialist threatened to shoot people and had been fired from a subsequent job with another state agency. State records show that those two allegations by the former tax collector were false. A year and a half after the security specialist stopped working for the tax collector, the tax collector allegedly summoned the security specialist’s mother, a 30-year employee of the tax collector’s office, confronted her along with his assistant, three lawyers and a court reporter. He allegedly tried to get her to give a sworn statement claiming that the security specialist and his girlfriend, also an employee of the tax collector’s office, had committed certain unspecified violations. Two days later, the tax collector fired both the mother and girlfriend of the security specialist. Since then, the taxpayers of Florida have paid $40,000 to settle a claim by the girlfriend, and will pay whatever comes out of negotiations with the mother. Allegedly, the former tax collector concocted the computer ransom plan to get revenge on a Seminole County Commissioner, who was falsely accused by the tax collector of fraudulently claiming a homestead exemption. In addition, the security specialist claimed that he gave the tax collector a key logger program to track the keystrokes of office employees.

The second story is from a few days ago. According to auditors examining the records of the tax collector’s office, the former tax collector used taxpayer dollars to purchase equipment and other items for himself and to reimburse legal fees he has incurred in defending himself against these various charges. The auditors also reported that the former tax collector used taxpayer money to install a cryptocurrency computer inside a private room in the office, and when it was moved to another location, it caused a power surge that started a fire. Insurance did not cover the damage because the cause of the fire was the negligence of the tax collector.

Will any of these allegations generate state or federal indictments. Perhaps. As I wrote in Lengthening the List of What Not to Do As a Tax Collector, “One would think that a tax collector should be collecting taxes. For some reason, in Florida, tax collectors also do other things unrelated to tax collection, such as renewing and replacing drivers’ licenses, issuing copies of birth certificates, issuing hunting and fishing licenses, issuing concealed weapons permits, and other services best confined to other agencies. Concentration of too much power and authority in one office or one person is dangerous. The situation with the former Seminole County tax collector is proof enough of the need to diversify who provides these services.” To that I add, enough with the nepotism. Enough with packing government offices, whether a local tax collector office or the White House, with family and friends.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Tax Payment Failure Exposes Auto Registration and Identity Fraud 

The number of television court shows continues to grow. I have watched several hundred episodes, of which just a few have provided me with material for posts such as Judge Judy and Tax Law, Judge Judy and Tax Law Part II, TV Judge Gets Tax Observation Correct, The (Tax) Fraud Epidemic, Tax Re-Visits Judge Judy, Foolish Tax Filing Decisions Disclosed to Judge Judy, So Does Anyone Pay Taxes?, Learning About Tax from the Judge. Judy, That Is, Tax Fraud in the People’s Court, More Tax Fraud, This Time in Judge Judy’s Court, You Mean That Tax Refund Isn’t for Me? Really?, Law and Genealogy Meeting In An Interesting Way, How Is This Not Tax Fraud?, A Court Case in Which All of Them Miss The Tax Point, Judge Judy Almost Eliminates the National Debt, Judge Judy Tells Litigant to Contact the IRS, People’s Court: So Who Did the Tax Cheating?, “I’ll Pay You (Back) When I Get My Tax Refund”, Be Careful When Paying Another Person’s Tax Preparation Fee, Gross Income from Dating?, Preparing Someone’s Tax Return Without Permission, When Someone Else Claims You as a Dependent on Their Tax Return and You Disagree, Does Refusal to Provide a Receipt Suggest Tax Fraud Underway?, When Tax Scammers Sue Each Other, One of the Reasons Tax Law Is Complicated, An Easy Tax Issue for Judge Judy, Another Easy Tax Issue for Judge Judy, Yet Another Easy Tax Issue for Judge Judy, Be Careful When Selecting and Dealing with a Tax Return Preparer, Fighting Over a Tax Refund, Another Tax Return Preparer Meets Judge Judy, Judge Judy Identifies Breach of a Tax Return Contract, When Tax Return Preparation Just Isn’t Enough, Fighting Over Tax Dependents When There Is No Evidence, If It’s Not Your Tax Refund, You Cannot Keep the Money, Contracts With Respect to Tax Refunds Should Be In Writing, Admitting to Tax Fraud When Litigating Something Else, When the Tax Software Goes Awry. How Not to Handle a Tax Refund, Car Purchase Case Delivers Surprise Tax Stunt, Wider Consequences of a Cash Only Tax Technique, Was Tax Avoidance the Reason for This Bizarre Transaction?, Was It Tax Fraud?, Need Money to Pay Taxes? How Not To Get It, When Needing Tax Advice, Don’t Just “Google It”, Re-examining Damages When Tax Software Goes Awry, How Is Tax Relevant in This Contract Case?, Does Failure to Pay Real Property Taxes Make the Owner a Squatter?, Beware of the Partner’s Tax Lien, and Trying to Make Sense of a “Conspiracy to Commit Tax Fraud”.

Though I enjoy watching these for several reasons, including the acquisition of material for this blog, I don’t have the time to view every episode of every show. In fact, because the recently added Judge Jerry show conflicts with Hot Bench in the schedule, I have seen only a handful of its episodes. But reader Morris has alerted me to an episode involving tax that aired very recently. This is at least the second time reader Morris has directed my attention to a television court show I had not seen.

In this episode, the defendant purchased a car using her sister’s identity. Her sister, the plaintiff, claimed that she did not give the defendant permission to use her identity. The defendant claimed that the plaintiff had handed her driver’s license to her, telling her to use it to purchase a car. Judge Jerry made it clear that with or without permission what the defendant did was a crime, and if the plaintiff participated in the deception she, too, committed a crime.

The plaintiff explained that she did not know about the deception until she tried to register her own car. Her attempt was rejected. The clerk told her that her attempt failed because she had failed to pay town taxes on another vehicle that she owned. The plaintiff, who did not own another vehicle, ascertained that the car being driven by her sister, the defendant, had been registered in her, the plaintiff’s, name. To be able to register her car in the town, the plaintiff needed the unpaid taxes to be paid, so she sued her sister for the amount of the taxes.

The defendant claimed that she had paid money to her sister but the plaintiff denied this claim. The defendant then claimed that her sister, the plaintiff, had let her use the plaintiff’s driver’s license because the defendant had done babysitting for the plaintiff and somehow this absolved any obligation. The defendant did not provide any evidence that she had paid the car taxes.

Judge Jerry explained that the babysitting and any other favors that the defendant did for the plaintiff were separate and not relevant. He concluded that the car belongs to the defendant, that the taxes on the car are the obligation of the defendant, and that the defendant’s failure to prove she paid the taxes required a decision that the defendant owed the plaintiff for the taxes.

The first tax lesson from this case is simple and obvious. The owner of a car must pay the taxes. The other lessons are just as important though they are not tax lessons. Do not register a vehicle using another person’s name. Do not present yourself using someone else’s identity documents. Do not pay someone to use their identity documents. Do not enter into agreements to commit identity fraud.

The second tax lesson from this case also is simple but perhaps not so obvious. Failure to pay taxes not only triggers audits and collection procedures, it also can reveal other activity by the taxpayer, and others, that is or borders on criminal violations as well as actions that justify civil judgments in favor of third parties. Worse, sometimes information on a tax return can alert authorities that the taxpayer is engaged in activities that raise suspicions and create referrals to the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorneys, state attorneys general, or local prosecutors.

Friday, November 06, 2020

What Happens to Employees When Employers Fail to Remit Withheld Taxes? 

After reading this story out of South Carolina, I thought it would be helpful to alert employees of yet another tax risk that they might encounter. According to the story, the owner of a chain of vision center stores in South Carolina has been arrested, charged not only with failing to collect, account for, or pay over withheld state income tax, but also with operating without a retail license. The retail license was revoked four years ago because the owner failed to pay business taxes. The owner issued forms W-2 to the employees, showing that taxes had been withheld, but those taxes, amounting to more than $131,000, were not remitted to the state.

A question popped into my head. What happens to the employees who file returns showing that they paid their taxes through withholding, as indicated on their Forms W-2, but who didn’t pay the tax because the employer failed to remit the withheld taxes? I thought I knew the answer, and checked to confirm I was correct. In South Carolina, under title 12 of South Carolina Code of Laws Unannotated, section 12-8-2010(B), “If a withholding agent fails to remit an amount withheld from a taxpayer under this chapter to the department, the taxpayer is allowed a credit for the amount of income tax withheld from him but not remitted.” In other words, the employee is not the one required to track down the employer and recover the unremitted tax; the state does that work. This provision tracks the result under Internal Revenue Code section 31(a)(1), and similar statutes exist in other states.

What is interesting to me is the contrast between what happens when an employer or other withholding agent goes bad, and when a tax return preparer goes bad. As I discussed in posts such as Tax Fraud Is Not Sacred, Another Tax Return Preparation Enterprise Gone Bad, More Tax Return Preparation Gone Bad, Are They Turning Up the Heat on Tax Return Preparers?, Surely There Is More to This Tax Fraud Indictment, Need a Tax Return Preparer? Don’t Use a Current IRS Employee, Is This How Tax Return Preparation Fraud Can Proliferate?, and When Tax Return Preparers Go Bad, Their Customers Can Pay the Price, taxpayers need to be careful when selecting a tax return preparer, because intentional or unintentional “mistakes” by the preparer are attributed to the taxpayer. In contrast, an intentional or unintentional “mistake” by an employer or other withholding agent with respect to remitting withheld taxes is not attributed to the taxpayer (unless, of course, the taxpayer was complicit). Why the difference? A taxpayer using a tax return preparer has the opportunity to review the return before signing it, whereas the typical employee does not have the opportunity to review the payments being made, or not being made, by the employer to the IRS and state revenue departments.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Pandemics: Financially Bad for Most People, Good for a Few 

Pandemics can reshape societies, nations, and governments, and sometimes pandemics can destroy them. The current pandemic has not only killed more than 200,000 Americans but also has left many more than that, probably millions, with long-term adverse health consequences ranging from myocarditis and scarred lungs to liver damage and failed kidneys. In addition to these life and health impacts, the pandemic has crushed many people financially. People have lost jobs. Sole proprietors have had to pull back from, or shut down, their business activities. Tax collections have dropped, imperiling those who rely on government for services such as fire protection, well-maintained roads and bridges, and public health oversight. But as bad as it has been for the typical, or average, or run-of-the-mill, or everyday American, the pandemic has had quite the opposite effect on a handful of Americans.

So who are the Americans who have not only survived through the pandemic but have prospered during its run? According to the U.S. Billionaires Wealth Growth spreadsheet, maintained by the Americans for Tax Fairness, the total net worth of America’s 644 billionaires increased 31.6 percent from March 18 through October 13. Their collective net worth rose from $2,947,500,000,000 (that’s $2.95 TRILLION) to $3,878,233,000,000 (that’s $3.88 trillion). That’s an increase of $930,733,000,000 (that’s $931 billion, or nearly a trillion dollars).

In the meantime, as Americans for Tax Fairness reports, the collective work in come of rank-and-file employees in the private sector, constituting the bottom 82 percent of the workforce, fell by 3.5 percent from mid-March through mid-September. Almost 62 million lost work during that same time period. As of mid-September 25 million were on unemployment. Almost 100,000 businesses, almost all of which are small outfits, closed permanently. Employer-sponsored health care coverage for 12 million Americans terminated. Sadly, for the period September 2 through September 28, 22 million adults, with 14 million children in their households, reported not having enough food. Roughly 15 percent of renters were behind in September rent payments.

So how is that “trickle down” economic policy working out? What good is “supply side” economics when there are fewer and fewer people able to afford whatever it is that is being supplied?

Sadly, we are reaping the results of the bad decisions that certain politicians and their admirers have advocated and sown. The rich play, and everyone else pays.

And to think so much of this was avoidable. I wonder if historians, assuming there are any in the decades and centuries ahead, will call this “The Era When Ignorance Triumphed.”

Monday, November 02, 2020

Tax Lies and Misleading Tax Claims 

It pops up all over social media. It shows up time and again on facebook. It’s a meme that says, “Biden wants to put a 3% annual federal tax on your home. Do you want him for POTUS?” A variant, somewhat more precise in its claim, states, “Biden wants to put a 3.0 % Annual (Yearly) Federal Tax on the Value of your Home.”

Biden has not made any such proposal. Every organization and individual that has fact-checked the claim has concluded it is baseless.

Why would someone claim that he has? It’s simple. When truth doesn’t work to their advantage, some people turn to lies. Consider this example from a long time ago:

Parent: “Stop chewing your fingernails.”

Child: “Why?”

Parent: “It looks bad, and if your nails are dirty it can be unhealthy.”

Child: “I don’t care.”

Parent, frustrated: “And, by the way, one of your nails, but no one knows which one, is poison and chewing on it will kill you.”

Because the truth didn’t work, rather than exerting effort to find another, honest, approach to dissuading the child from fingernail-chewing, the parent turned to a falsehood. And what happens when the child learns, later, that the parent lied?

A similar absurdity pops up in political ads favoring Donald Trump. The ads contain a clip of Biden saying, “I’m going to raise taxes,” and then cuts to several people bemoaning the horrors of increased taxes and complaining how that will hurt them. Of course, the ad took Biden’s statement, “I’m going to raise taxes on people with incomes over $400,000” and clipped off the second part of the sentence. Of course, the people in the ads complaining about tax increases are portrayed as individuals who surely are not earning more than $400,000 annually. The point of the ad is, again, fear generated by a false or misleading statement.

I wonder how the liars and manipulators would feel if they were asked, “Did you rob the bank?” and they replied “Absolutely not,” and then discovered that someone cropped their words so that when asked, “Did you rob the bank?” their answer would show up as “Absolutely.” I suspect they would be screaming foul more loudly than anyone reacting to their mendacious political advertising.

Of course, if Americans were sufficiently educated about everything that matters, took the time to do research, made the effort to think critically, and troubled themselves to engage in critical analysis, the lies and misleading statements would have no effect. The purveyors of these lies and misleading statements would either fade out of the picture or learn to tell the truth and construct arguments based on truth.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Halloween Chocolate Construction Project 

From the outset of this blog, I have made it a point to work Halloween into MauledAgain, usually looking for the silly or goofy but occasionally taking a more serious approach. The posts began with Taxing "Snack" or "Junk" Food (2004), and have continued through Halloween and Tax: Scared Yet? (2005), Happy Halloween: Chocolate Math and Tax Arithmetic (2006), Tricky Treating: Teaching Tax Trumps Tasty Tidbit Transfers (2007), Halloween Brings Out the Lunacy (2007), A Truly Frightening Halloween Candy Bar (2008), Unmasking the Deductibility of Halloween Costumes (2009), Happy Halloween: Revenue Department Scares Kids Into Abandoning Pumpkin Sales (2010), The Scary Part of Halloween Costume Sales Taxation (2011), Halloween Takes on a New Meaning and It Isn’t Happy (2012), Some Scary Halloween Thoughts (2013), The Inequality of Halloween? (2014), When Candy Isn’t Candy (2015), Beyond Scary: Tax-Based Halloween Costumes (2016), Another Halloween Treat? I Think Not (2017), If Halloween Candy Isn’t Food, Is it Medicine? (2018), and The Halloween Parent Tax: Seriously?.

Thanks to reader Morris, I have learned that this Halloween, people can buy kits that permit them to build haunted houses made out of chocolate. I suppose if Christmas can get gingerbread house builders all excited, why not let Halloween inspire those who want to use chocolate as construction material. Apparently the materials come in the form of cookies, candies, and icing.

Of course, reader Morris saw the tax angle. He asked, “What taxes {sales , VAT, use tax, sugar tax, etc.} if any, would you need to pay on this product if delivered to Pennsylvania from UK?”

My answer: “I know that the Pennsylvania use tax, not its sales tax, would apply. There is no sugar tax on a non-beverage item. I don’t know enough about the UK VAT to answer.” But I should amend that answer. The Pennsylvania sales and use tax does not apply to cookies, candy, and icing because they are food, and food is exempt, but perhaps if the food is used as a construction material it is not exempt. Yet should that matter? Think of how many children “play with their food” before eating it and who are told, “Don’t play with your food.” Playing with food does not cause it to be excluded from the sales tax exemption. Surely playing with it by building a haunted house does not cause it to be subject to sales or use tax. Or does it?

But then everything came crashing down. Curious, I tried to determine if the seller of the chocolate haunted house construction kit collected any taxes. What I quickly noticed was this frightening warning: “International Delivery: Not available for this item.” So much for my thoughts of doing some “tax research” by ordering this item. Oh, well, Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

How Not to Prove You Know Taxes and the Tax Code Better Than Anyone Else 

It was back in August of 2015 that Donald J. Trump spoke a question clearly designed to be a statement, “Who knows taxes better than me?” My response, in “Who Knows Taxes Better Than Me?”, I pointed out that if I were asking the question, “it would not be delivered in a manner suggesting that the answer is no one.” I also pointed out that “surely there are at least a few people who know taxes better than me.”

After setting out my benchmarks for determining if someone “knows taxes,” summarized again in Disinterest in Tax: Should Difficulty in Understanding Justify Ignorance?, I noted that his statements that the “fair tax is okay” and the “flat tax is okay” “demonstrate you know very little about taxation that matters.” I pointed out that his statements were “Certainly not enough to set yourself up as an omniscient tax expert.”

A few months later, in “Who Knows the Tax Code Better Than Me?”, I commented on Trump’s rhetorical quip, “Who knows the tax code better than me?” I answered the question, “a lot of other people.”

Reader Morris has shared with me story that brings home this maxim: what’s worse than being ignorant and declaring knowledge is demonstrating that ignorance. Here is the transcript between NBC’s Savannah Guthrie and tax expert Donald J. Trump:

GUTHRIE: It also says that you paid $750 in taxes in the year you were elected. Is that true or not?

TRUMP: Yes, because that’s a statutory number. It’s a statutory -- it’s not that --

GUTHRIE: But is that true?

TRUMP: I think it’s a filing number. You pay $750, it’s a filing -- or a filing fee.

GUTHRIE: But is that all you paid because most people here probably paid more?

TRUMP: No, I don’t know. I can’t tell you this, if they have my tax returns, as you know, they have to go to jail. It’s illegal. But their numbers were wrong.

A filing number? A filing fee? Hello! Tax experts would not say something like that in the context of the question that was asked. And who doesn’t have a rough idea of how much they have paid in federal income taxes?

Perhaps the self-anointed tax expert would be willing to sit down and take an exam in a basic federal income tax course. Then he could prove he knows taxes and the tax code better than anyone else. Or perhaps after reading the first question he would get up and storm out of the room.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Trying to Make Sense of a “Conspiracy to Commit Tax Fraud” 

Until now, each time I have watched and commented on a television court show in which taxes were mentioned, I have been able to understand the tax issue even if I did not understand why one or both of the parties did what they did, said what they said, or argued what they argued. This has been true for shows I have commented on in posts such as Judge Judy and Tax Law, Judge Judy and Tax Law Part II, TV Judge Gets Tax Observation Correct, The (Tax) Fraud Epidemic, Tax Re-Visits Judge Judy, Foolish Tax Filing Decisions Disclosed to Judge Judy, So Does Anyone Pay Taxes?, Learning About Tax from the Judge. Judy, That Is, Tax Fraud in the People’s Court, More Tax Fraud, This Time in Judge Judy’s Court, You Mean That Tax Refund Isn’t for Me? Really?, Law and Genealogy Meeting In An Interesting Way, How Is This Not Tax Fraud?, A Court Case in Which All of Them Miss The Tax Point, Judge Judy Almost Eliminates the National Debt, Judge Judy Tells Litigant to Contact the IRS, People’s Court: So Who Did the Tax Cheating?, “I’ll Pay You (Back) When I Get My Tax Refund”, Be Careful When Paying Another Person’s Tax Preparation Fee, Gross Income from Dating?, Preparing Someone’s Tax Return Without Permission, When Someone Else Claims You as a Dependent on Their Tax Return and You Disagree, Does Refusal to Provide a Receipt Suggest Tax Fraud Underway?, When Tax Scammers Sue Each Other, One of the Reasons Tax Law Is Complicated, An Easy Tax Issue for Judge Judy, Another Easy Tax Issue for Judge Judy, Yet Another Easy Tax Issue for Judge Judy, Be Careful When Selecting and Dealing with a Tax Return Preparer, Fighting Over a Tax Refund, Another Tax Return Preparer Meets Judge Judy, Judge Judy Identifies Breach of a Tax Return Contract, When Tax Return Preparation Just Isn’t Enough, Fighting Over Tax Dependents When There Is No Evidence, If It’s Not Your Tax Refund, You Cannot Keep the Money, Contracts With Respect to Tax Refunds Should Be In Writing, Admitting to Tax Fraud When Litigating Something Else, When the Tax Software Goes Awry. How Not to Handle a Tax Refund, Car Purchase Case Delivers Surprise Tax Stunt, Wider Consequences of a Cash Only Tax Technique, Was Tax Avoidance the Reason for This Bizarre Transaction?, Was It Tax Fraud?, Need Money to Pay Taxes? How Not To Get It, When Needing Tax Advice, Don’t Just “Google It”, Re-examining Damages When Tax Software Goes Awry, How Is Tax Relevant in This Contract Case?, Does Failure to Pay Real Property Taxes Make the Owner a Squatter?, and Beware of the Partner’s Tax Lien.

This time, however, I have struggled to understand the tax issue raised in the latest Judge Judy episode that I have watched. I paid close attention to episode 213 of season 23 because its title drew me in. Why wouldn’t I sit up and notice an episode entitled, “The Weaponization of Child Protective Services?!; Tax Fraud Conspiracy?!” ? Note that the first part of the episode title refers to a different case handled in the same episode that had nothing to do with taxes.

The case was not a tax case but involved a painting contract. The plaintiff contracted with the defendant for the defendant to do painting work in the plaintiff’s home. When Judge Judy asked for a copy of the contract, she was given an unsigned document. The defendant said that it was signed but that the plaintiff had the signed original. The plaintiff denied having the original. But both parties agreed that there was a signed contract under which the defendant would be paid $3,800 to do the painting work.

The defendant did the painting, and when the plaintiff requested additional work be done, the parties agreed on an additional cost. The defendant did the additional work and in November of the year in which the work was done presented the plaintiff with an invoice for $5,500. The plaintiff paid that amount. Two years later she sued for a return of the entire amount because she claimed the work was not done properly. The plaintiff offered evidence of defects, but the defendant denied that the flaws were his doing. As Judge Judy went through the video provided by the plaintiff, the defendant pointed out that the damage was done by the plaintiff’s actions or were problems that pre-dated his work. The defendant produced texts sent by the plaintiff after he was finished in which she described the work as “gorgeous.” The plaintiff claimed that the word “gorgeous” was a reference to the paint color. Judge Judy dismissed the plaintiff’s case.

Here’s the tax twist. After asking for the contract and learning of the agreement for additional work, Judge Judy asked for a copy of the invoice. She noted that the date on the invoice was January of the year following the year in which the work was done. She asked why, considering that the defendant had testified he finished the work and sent the invoice in November of the year in which he did the work, did the invoice had a date of January of the following year. The defendant testified that he changed the date on the invoice from November to January at the request of the plaintiff so that she “could use it on her taxes.” At first, the plaintiff disagreed but then did agree that she had asked for the change in the date and that she did so for tax purposes. Judge Judy remarked that what the defendant had described was “a conspiracy to commit tax fraud.”

What has baffled me is figuring out what advantage the plaintiff would obtain by shifting the date on the invoice to the following year. It certainly was not a sales tax issue, because she paid the invoice when it was received in November and presumably the defendant remitted any sales tax to the state in that year. It surely was not a real property tax issue, because a $5.500 paint job in the nature of maintenance does not add any realistically measurable value to a home and would not trigger a re-assessment. And if it did, the amount of the tax increase would be negligible, surely in the range of one or two digits.

So it must have been an income tax issue. But for that to be the case, the amount paid by the plaintiff would need to be deductible. The only possible deduction would be the portion of the invoice amount allocated to a home office, assuming the plaintiff had one. But moving the date of the invoice would not change anything. If the plaintiff did not want a deduction in the year the work was done because it would not reduce taxable income on account of the section 280A limitation or because taxable income was otherwise negative, it would simply have increased the loss carryforward shifted into the next year. So moving the deduction into the next year would not provide an advantage.

There must be more to the story, but no additional facts were presented during the proceedings that would answer the question or provide additional clues. Perhaps the plaintiff erroneously thought that postponing the deduction would be advantageous. In that case, it would be difficult to characterize the postponement as fraud, especially as it provided no advantage.

So what specific tax advantage motivated her to make the date change request of the defendant? Perhaps there is some tax angle I’m overlooking.

Friday, October 23, 2020

No, I Did NOT Reply to the Sender of This Letter 

Several days ago, I received a letter. The letter promised to make me a “beneficiary” of funds being held in trust by an asset management firm that had been owned by a person who died in 2009. The letter proposed splitting these funds one-third to me, one-third to the writer of the letter, and one-third to the decedent’s favorite charity.

Of course, alarm bells went off even before I reached that part of the letter. I read the letter because I knew it would be amusing. I wanted to see how many indications of scam I could identify. I will share those indications so that people who read this blog post can learn, if they don’t already know, what sorts of clues warn us that something that might appear to be genuine surely isn’t.

Clue number one: the letter arrived in an envelope without a return address. Legitimate business correspondence should carry a return address.

Clue number two: my name and address were not printed directly on the envelope but was printed on a peel-and-stick label attached to the envelope. Legitimate business correspondence should not be addressed as though it was one of at least thousands of similar mailings.

Clue number three: the letter lacked a letterhead. Legitimate business correspondence should carry a letterhead.

Clue number four: The letter opened with the writer’s introduction of what is allegedly his name. I will not repeat the name. I will refer to the person as the alleged sender. The alleged sender claimed to be based in Hong Kong. The envelope was mailed with a Canadian stamp, not a Hong Kong stamp.

Clue number five: The name given as the alleged writer is a real person based in Hong Kong. However, the person is not a lawyer, nor did the person identify himself as the executor of the decedent’s estate or as the trustee of a trust. Legitimate business correspondence would not be so vague.

Clue number six: The letter provided a legal citation that does not correspond to any existing legal authority.

Clue number seven: The surname of the alleged decedent is the same as mine. There are six individuals in my family database with the same first name stated in the letter. Three died long before the alleged decedent mentioned in the letter died, and the other three are alive.

Clue number eight: The letter claimed that the alleged decedent’s estate would forfeit to the Hong Kong Monetary Fund unless a beneficiary was nominated. Being familiar with intestacy provisions in American states, that claim struck me as rather unusual. It turns out that Hong Kong intestacy law is not unlike intestacy provisions in the United States, and there is no way I would be entitled to the amount in question. A legitimate business inquiry would ask if I was related within the specified degrees of relationship listed in the appropriate statute.

Clue number nine: The letter writer claimed that he intended to retire and wanted to close out matters on his desk. The alleged sender of the letter is decades from retirement, and is not involved in administering estates.

Clue number ten: The letter writer claimed to have exclusive access to the alleged decedent’s file. That is nonsense. Information about a decedent would also be held by the relevant probate court, creditors of the estate, and others involved in the administration of the estate.

Clue number eleven: The letter writer’s proposal to split the alleged funds in three ways explained that “you can be made the beneficiary of these funds, this would be made easy and will go unnoticed in the system.” Legitimate business correspondence about an inheritance does not brag about making transactions “go unnoticed in the system.” In addition, the grammar in the entire paragraph is not up to the standards expected in legitimate business correspondence.

Clue number twelve: The letter writer requested that I “please trust me on this,” which is not what a legitimate business correspondent in this sort of situation would write.

Clue number thirteen: The letter writer stated that the decedent “always talked about a relative who shared the exact same name.” In one respect, so what? That proves nothing. From another perspective, there are thousands of individuals who carry that surname. Nothing indicates that the alleged decedent mentioned me, and considering the peel-and-stick address label, surely this letter was sent to everyone the letter writer could find who bears the surname, hoping that even a one-tenth of one percent response rate would provide at least one potential victim.

Clue number fourteen: The letter writer stated, “there is no wrong-doing on your part as I am the sole architect of this project.” That is very close to an admission that the entire letter is the scheme of the letter writer.

Clue number fifteen: The letter writer claimed the he alone determines who “the inheritor is.” In every jurisdiction in which a decedent’s estate is administered, the probate court or its equivalent must approve the distribution of the assets. Clearly, the letter sender doesn’t know much about Hong Kong probate law.

Clue number sixteen: The letter writer asks to be contacted by telephone, fax, or email, but provides only one number and one email. Legitimate business correspondence does not exhibit that sort of mistake, especially in an era where use of facsimile transmissions is almost extinct.

Clue number seventeen: The email was a generic account and not within the domain of the company for which the alleged sender works.

Clue number eighteen: The phone number provided in the letter does not correspond to any legitimate business.

Curious, I did a bit more research. Apparently, scamsters have been circulating this letter, in varied forms. According to this South China Morning Post report, the names used and the companies alleged to be holding the money vary. The letters are being sent from various countries. The letters, though, share common characteristics, including the existence of an unclaimed estate left by a decedent whose surname matches the surname of the letter recipient. The South China Morning Post staff pursued the sender of the letter it obtained, and encountered the typical response from a scamster. Some of the language in that letter matches word-for-word the language in the letter I received.

So how does the scam work? At some point, after the victim responds and is pulled along into the trap, the victim is asked to pay a fee of some sort, usually because of a sudden and unexpected difficulty with some alleged government or a bureaucrat or some other invented situation. Too often, people send the money. Then the scamster disappears.

And that is why I have shared this story. It took me 20 seconds to identify the letter as a scam. It took me more than an hour to write this post and do some research. My goal is to educate people, to alert them to the fact that although scams seemingly have moved to the internet while still showing up in phone calls, there still are scamsters using postal mail. My goal is to stress the importance of critical thinking, of careful analysis of words, of attention to detail, of fact-checking, and of resisting what makes these scams work, which is, as the South China Post reporter explained, “by preying on people's greed.”

My last laugh at the scamster, who doesn’t know I laughed, arose when I thought, “I wonder if this clown realizes he sent this letter to a lawyer who happens to teach a course dealing with inheritance.” But then I realized, very few of the scamster’s letter recipients are lawyers, let alone lawyers who teach wills and trusts. And that is when I decided I needed to write this commentary. I hope it saves someone from being bamboozled by a scamster con artist.

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