Got A Tax Tip? Pass It On

TO WIT

February 20, 1994|By DAVE BARRY

Today I am announcing the first-ever Amateur Tax Tips Contest, featuring an exciting prize as well as an opportunity for some lucky winners to serve lengthy terms in federal prison.

The purpose of the Amateur Tax Tips Contest is to provide normal people with practical, real-life answers to their tax questions, as opposed to the complex and vague "advice" we so often see in columns written by the kind of goody-two-shoes money geeks who actually save their receipts and record their mileage and file their tax returns on Jan. 2. I'll give you an example of what I mean.

Q: How much can I deduct for a business office in my home?

Complex, vague money-geek answer: "Calculate the size of the office as a percentage of the total living area, then use this figure to compute the pro-rata costs of utilities, mortgage interest, taxes and insurance."

Practical, down-to-earth answer: "$6,532.87"

That's what we taxpayers want: concrete information. We don't want: "Total your amortized capital depreciation as specified in Schedule C, section 873, subsection VII, verses xii and xiii." We want: "Put down that you lost $3,832.24 operating a perch farm."

Perhaps you think I am suggesting something dangerous here. Perhaps you do not believe that the Internal Revenue Service (Motto: "We'll Answer the Taxpayer Assistance Hot Line When You Pry the Coffee Cup From Our Cold, Dead Fingers") would allow you to take anything so ridiculous as a perch-farm deduction.

Listen: You can deduct anything. People have deducted used underwear. And when I say "people" I, of course, mean Bill Clinton. According to news reports, in past years President Clinton deducted as much as $2 per pair for used underwear that he donated to the Salvation Army, which in turn gave the underwear to some needy individual, who in turn threw it into a trash container.

No, really, I'm sure this needy individual wore Mr. Clinton's former underwear in a profoundly grateful manner. And I applaud Mr. Clinton's generosity. Although I am troubled somewhat by the idea of any guy voluntarily giving up his underwear. Whoever says that guys are unwilling to make lifetime commitments clearly has not examined the intimate bond that can develop between a guy and his briefs.

Call me heartless, but I've never donated my used underwear to anybody. The irony is that I happen to own a set of briefs that are probably quite valuable, inasmuch as they are signed, in ink, by a well-known humor writer. (There's a perfectly innocent explanation, but he's embarrassed about it, so as a courtesy to him I'm not going to reveal his name here.) (Instead, I'll reveal it here: Roy Blount Jr.) I estimate that, for tax-deduction purposes, these briefs are worth $2,473.02. Notice that I use an exact-sounding number here. That is one of the most important Amateur Tax Tips:

Always use an exact-sounding number when you are making something up. The Internal Revenue Service goes over tax returns with dogs that are specially trained to bark angrily when they find round numbers.

Always double-check all figures. I say this in light of a 1993 Washington Post article concerning a Centreville, Md., man who received a bill from the IRS for -- I am not making this up -- $68 billion. A lot of careless taxpayers would have simply paid this bill, but this man had the presence of mind to question it, and as a result he will be eligible for parole in just 224 years.

No, seriously, he got it straightened out. The Post article doesn't say exactly how; my guess is that he will be allowed to make two easy payments of $34 billion. This just goes to show that ordinary taxpayers can "beat the system." And you can help those taxpayers by sending in your tip to our Amateur Tax Tips Contest. Send in anything that you think might be helpful to other taxpayers, including a photograph of the IRS commissioner naked. The only restriction is that whatever you send must be on a postal card. Send your card to: Amateur Tax Tips, c/o Judi Smith, Miami Herald, Miami, Fla. 33132. I'll report the best tips just before April 15. The people who suggest them will receive a handsome mention of their names in this column, as well as a chance to be audited for life. The person who suggests the best tip will receive, at tremendous personal tax-deductible sacrifice to me, a historic literary object that has been valued, in print, at $2,473.02. I may even wash them first.

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