Friday, April 16, 2010

The Tax Final

Way back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and I graduated college with my degree in Accounting, my father told me that the true final exam would be doing my grandfather's tax return.

First of all, you have to recognize that this was long before programs like TurboTax existed, long before anybody had a home computer, and when calculators that could do just the minimal math functions cost hundreds of dollars. As such, all the entries -- and all the back-up math -- were done by hand.

Grampa's return was a challenge right from the start. He kept all of his "tax papers" in a large shoebox -- bills, receipts, bank statements, etc. -- unsorted. As they arrived during the year, he put them in the box. I sorted through them, isolating what was necessary for the return and what wasn't. When I would question a bill or receipt, he would tell me about it and add that, "your father told me to save everything." And he did.

Grampa and his wife (my step-grandmother, who we called "Aunt Marion"), lived in an apartment in Manhattan, but they also had a house in upstate Schroon Lake, where they spent the summer. Both of them were in their mid-70s, collected Social Security, and had no other source of income.

Well, that's not exactly true. In Schroon Lake, Grampa ran a "snack bar" -- serving breakfast, lunch, and such -- in a small building on the property. He later owned a luncheonette in town and then ran the concession stand at the local beach, the last when he was about 80. That first year I did his taxes, he made no profit from the snack bar. My father later confirmed that Grampa was lucky if he broke even in any given year.

Once I had all the papers sorted, I started filling out the various forms. There were lots of them and the only one I did not have to fill in involved the sale of farm equipment. (Had I mentioned this, I'm sure Grampa would have bought and sold a tractor the following year, just so we could fill out the form.) We spent most of the afternoon at the dining room table, getting the return done. Every now and then, my father would look in and chuckle.

Once the Federal return was completed, I had to do the New York State one, with yet another collection of forms. And when all was said and done, Grampa owed no taxes. This was not really a surprise, since he had virtually no income. I told him so, figuring he would be happy, but, instead, he said, "What about my refund?"
"Grampa, you didn't pay any taxes. There isn't any refund."
"Your father always gets me a fifty dollar refund."
I looked at the previous year's return, but there was no indication of a refund. "Did you get one last year?"
"Your father gets me one every year," Grampa insisted.

So I went to my father with the return. As he was flipping through it, I asked how he managed to get Grampa money back. "Oh, I just give him fifty bucks and tell him it's his senior citizen refund!"
"Well, I don't have $50 to give him!"
At which point my father handed me the money and said, "Give this to him." He then laughed and said, "And, by the way, you passed the test."

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