You can refuse to divulge your Social Security number

Employers and banks probably do need it

lots of others don't

Dollars & Sense

May 05, 2002|By Liz Pulliam Weston | Liz Pulliam Weston,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

You've written before about how important it is to protect your Social Security number to prevent identity theft. But it seems like every form I fill out these days asks for my number. When do I have to reveal my number, and when can I keep it to myself?

If taxes or credit decisions are involved, you'll usually need to divulge your Social Security number. That means it can be required by employers, banks and brokerages, as well as certain government agencies, such as tax, welfare and motor vehicles departments.

You'll also have to give out your number if you're applying for credit, asking for a copy of your credit report or opting out of credit solicitations via the credit bureaus' 888-5-OPT-OUT number.

In most other cases, you should refuse to divulge it. Just leave that part of the form blank. If you're challenged, ask whether the business or agency will accept another form of identification. Be polite, but firm, and appeal to a supervisor if you get an uncooperative "that's our policy" response.

Social Security numbers were never intended to be a catch-all personal identification for the business world, and yet that is what they have become.

Given the growth of identity theft, consumers need to start fighting back.

When I have to pay taxes, federal and state tax authorities usually cash my check within a week. This year I was owed refunds and it took more than seven weeks for the checks to arrive. My return was professionally prepared, is very straightforward and could have been easily scrutinized. Given this, the amount of delay seems excessive. Why does it take so long to get a refund?

It doesn't - if you file electronically and have your refund deposited directly into your bank account. Taxpayers this year were getting refunds within two weeks using those methods.

Because you (or your preparer) insist on filing a paper return, your tax information has to be manually entered into IRS computers by agency staff. Given that millions of returns arrived the same day yours did, it's not surprising that it took the IRS, and your state agency, a few weeks to complete the transaction. When you file electronically, your information bypasses the old-fashioned manual-entry process. And when you request direct deposit, you cut several more days off the process, because the tax agency doesn't have to print and mail you a check.

Thank you for your column and the many exhortations to get estate plans in order, as well as the occasional kind slap on the cheek when people propose risky or useless acts. I have been the indirect recipient of such slaps, and I thank you! In particular, kudos for your recent column about "pay-on-death" arrangements for bank accounts. Until your column, I had not heard of this method to avoid probate.

Glad to be of service. Probate is the court process that typically follows a death, and it can be expensive and lengthy in certain states.

That's why people look for ways to avoid it by using pay-on-death accounts, joint tenancy and living trusts. You can find a good discussion of these devices in Plan Your Estate, by Denis Clifford and Cora Jordan (Nolo Press, 2001).

If your assets are few and your financial system is simple, using pay-on-death accounts can be a good solution. You simply designate someone to receive the money in the account. The beneficiary presents your death certificate to the bank or brokerage, and the assets are transferred without going through probate.

If your estate is big enough to incur estate taxes, however, you'd be smart to have your plans reviewed by a qualified estate-planning attorney.

Judging by the mail this column gets, too many people try to save a few bucks by not hiring an attorney, a strategy that often results in hassles and unnecessary costs for their heirs.

You recently responded to someone asking about the arguments tax protesters use to justify not paying their share. I have another perspective to add.

I teach adults at night, and once or twice a year I ask the question, "How do you feel about paying taxes?" The reply is usually negative. Last year, I had several foreign students. Their reply was eye-opening. They said, "I like to pay taxes in America. You get to see the results. Roads are fixed. Police officers and firefighters come to your house when called. Your children get books in school, etc. You pay taxes in my country and watch the potholes get bigger every year."

Your students have an excellent point: Our tax system isn't perfect by any means, but the public services we get in return are among the best in the world.

Liz Pulliam Weston is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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