Tax-day trivia to make your April 15 a little more fun

April 14, 2015

April 15 is rarely anyone’s favorite day of the year. But ASU's Don Frost aims to make it a little less, well, taxing with some interesting trivia.

Frost, a lecturer at ASU's W. P. Carey School of Business, knows taxes. The ASU alumnus worked in accounting for years, including with one of the “big 8” firms and with the fledgling America West Airlines, and along the way taxes caught his fancy. tax form and calculator Download Full Image

“Tax intrigued me because it was the application of accounting, law and prose all wrapped up into one,” says Frost, who implemented an ASU West campus branch of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program this year. The program is sponsored by the IRS, and Arizona State University is a participant.

He has spent every weekend since January helping staff the program there but took some time to talk tax trivia.

1. Doomsday happens, and you would STILL have to file your taxes

Early on in his career, Frost was reading through revenue procedure and found directions for what the IRS would do in the event of a nuclear holocaust and the vaporization of the secretary of the Treasury.

“Literally, in the aftermath of World War III we would continue to collect taxes,” Frost says.

2. Punctuation marks aren’t deductible, apparently

One section of the Internal Revenue Code – 341(e)(1), if you must know – has, from the first capital letter to when you finally hit a period, more words than Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. (Frost always thought it would be a fantastic sentence-diagram exercise.)

The section, which deals with collapsible corporations, was repealed in 2004. We’re fairly sure it wasn’t because of the run-on sentence, but you never know.

3. Can’t buy me love – or tax relief

George Harrison wrote Beatles song “Taxman” (which Frost points out you’ll likely hear often on the radio on April 15) as an attack on the high levels of progressive tax in Britain at the time. The lyric “There’s one for you, 19 for me” was in reference to the 95 percent “supertax” that the Beatles were subject to because of their income level.

The U.S. is no stranger to high marginal rates. During the latter part of World War II, the highest was 90 percent. (The effective or “real” rate was substantially less, it must be noted.) For comparison, right now, the highest marginal rate is 39.6 percent.

It happens in other countries, too, Frost says: director Ingmar Bergman and tennis player Bjorn Borg both left Sweden for Monaco because the tax rates were so high.

By the way, if you decide to follow their lead and leave the U.S. for tax-protest reasons, be aware that you’ll face a steep charge. An exit fee, if you will, Frost says.

4. When the government takes your shorts

There have been many colorful acts of tax rebellion. Frost cites one real case, well documented, in which taxpayers owed the government money and paid it with a check written on underwear.

“And the government cashed them!” Frost says.

Unless you’re ready to deal with the government wrath created by such a stunt, we’d suggest keeping your BVDs far from the IRS.

5. That's too bad, ASU employees

In 1913, the federal government (the Internal Revenue Bureau in those days) did not tax the salaries of employees of state and local governments, under a theory that the feds could not step on the toes of the states and vice versa – the doctrine of intergovernmental immunity.

That interpretation changed over the years, and in the late 1930s, the U.S. Supreme Court more or less indicated that in most circumstances taxation of salaries of state/local employees by the federal government was just fine. 

So today ASU employees pay federal income tax, but 100 years ago, it was a different story.

6. Got a student loan? Pay attention

When student loans mature and start accruing interest, that interest is a deduction ­– but not just any deduction. It is what’s called an above-the-line deduction, Frost says, with the “line” being the line of adjusted gross income on the form.

So what does that mean? Even if you take a standard deduction rather than itemized, you can still take a deduction for the student-loan interest on top of that.

“It’s a smoking deal,” Frost says, and one that many people don’t realize, leaving their loan interest on the table.

One caveat: If Mom or Dad still list you as a dependent, you can’t claim it. But they might be able to.

7. We know your pets are family, but … well, they’re not, actually

Frost had a client who tried to claim his dog as a dependent.

“He took the pet-parent thing to the nth degree,” he says.

But no matter how much you love your pets (even if you love them more than your family), they can’t be claimed as a dependent.

People also have tried, unsuccessfully, to claim well-tipped restaurant servers as dependents, as well as deductions for donated blood, semen and eggs. No dice, Frost says.

8. But you can claim this as a deduction

Gender-reassignment surgery is deductible, as long as the person is properly diagnosed with gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria.

This has not always been true, but even the IRS changes with the times and with changes in the medical community.

9. Everyone owes taxes – everyone

One of the big misconceptions, Frost says, is that people think they didn’t owe any tax if they get a refund. You DID owe tax; you just overpaid.

And before you get too excited about that refund, remember that getting one means you gave the government an interest-free loan. If that’s less than palatable, you might want to revisit your withholding setup.

10. Even people in space

However, residents of the International Space Station are technically out of the country, so they trigger an automatic two-month extension. And we’re fairly certain they e-file.

Speaking of space explorers, Frost says there’s a story that members of the Apollo missions got hazard pay, and that was taxable ­– even though it was earned on the moon.

11. About that, ahem, side business

All income, even illegal income, is supposed to be claimed on your taxes.

Don’t believe us? Ask infamous gangster Al Capone, sentenced to 11 years in federal prison for not paying income tax on his ill-gotten gains. Of course, he also responsible for countless deaths, but it was the taxes that landed him in the clink.

12. And finally, for those of you who still aren’t finished with your taxes

“I don’t think people understand the nature of tax extensions,” Frost says. “You can request one, and it gives you another six months to file and prepare. But it doesn’t give you another 6 months to pay any tax you owe.”

So if you owe money to the government, be aware that interest and penalties start accruing after midnight April 15, even if you don’t have to file for months because of an extension.

Penny Walker

News director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


ASU team unlocks clues in unidentified human remains

April 15, 2015

Like something out of “CSI” or “Bones,” researchers at Arizona State University are working to solve the mysteries of unidentified human remains – and just as on those TV shows, science plays a key role.

Gwyneth Gordon, an associate research scientist in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, will soon be making a trip to academia’s most distinctive research facility: the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility, the original “Body Farm.” Gwyneth Gordon and Kelly Knudson Download Full Image

At the facility’s open-air crime labs, decomposing corpses are left out in the elements, some on the ground and others in shallow graves. Gordon will collect samples from the cadavers and samples of soil and groundwater; in May, she’ll do the same thing at Texas State University in San Marcos.

With funding from the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, Gordon and professors Kelly Knudson and Ariel Anbar will study how various isotopes in the human body behave during decomposition in different environments. These techniques have long been used in the anthropologic study of migration and lifestyle of ancient peoples, but only recently have begun to be used in modern cases of homicide, mass graves and unidentified migrants.

With some 10,000 open cases of unidentified human remains in the U.S. today, the research’s results will have real-life implications for law enforcement, medical examiners and families looking for answers.

“Can our technique unravel a human story that was previously lost to history? That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Gordon says. “The donor histories provide premortem travel and geographic life histories, and we’ll see if our analyses match their life histories.”

Unlocking clues hidden in bones

Every molecule in our bodies is made up not just of different elements, but of different ratios of stable isotopes of those elements. They leave an isotopic signature that can speak for the dead, revealing diet, birthplace and travel history.

Samples collected at the body farms – including hair, tooth enamel and skeletal elements – will be analyzed at ASU for oxygen and hydrogen isotopes to determine latitude; carbon and nitrogen to obtain dietary history; and strontium and lead isotopes and trace elements to establish the type of bedrock where the deceased was born or lived.

Sample preparation will occur both in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and in collaboration with the Archaeological Chemistry Laboratory under the supervision of archaeological chemist Kelly Knudson, associate professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and affiliated with the Center for Bioarchaeological Research.

Knudson uses biogeochemistry and bioarchaeology to answer anthropological research questions. She is a world expert on the application of isotopes to archaeological sites and individuals.

“As an archaeologist, I am more used to working with people who died hundreds or thousands of years ago. Applying my knowledge to forensics applications and, eventually, to helping to solve modern cases is one of the things that really appeals to me about our research project,” Knudson says.

Finding migrants’ birthplace

The sites of the two body farms have very different climates and soil types. Tennessee – very wet – is similar to significant portions of the United States, while the dry Texas site is similar to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We chose that site explicitly because of the large number of undocumented immigrants who die in the desert while trying to get to the U.S. These individuals often have no identification on them, and their families never know what happened to them,” Gordon says. “There’s also commonly no DNA to match them to. If we can get a better idea where they were from using isotopes, the search for their families would be significantly easier.”

According to Knudson, archaeologists have been using isotopic data to figure out people’s diets for more than 30 years, while using that data to determine someone’s birthplace has been common only in the past 15 years.

“These techniques haven’t been used quite as much in forensic anthropology, despite what you may see on ‘CSI’ or ‘Bones,’ ” she says.

While stable isotopes have proven themselves useful, they aren’t staples of forensic science – yet. However, a number of case studies have demonstrated that these types of information can narrow the search and help discover a person’s identification.

“What I think is great about this research is that we are doing the kinds of baseline research into how these isotopes act during decomposition so that the forensics community can use them,” Knudson says.

Nikki Cassis

marketing and communications director, School of Earth and Space Exploration