Verner: Another rite of passage filed away

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 25, 2012

This past week, my son and I finally had “the talk.”
If you’re a parent, you know exactly what I mean. And if you’re a father, you know how excruciatingly awkward it can be to discuss things that are, well, of a somewhat personal and delicate nature. Things you would just as soon not think about your precious children being involved in.
But there comes a time when a young man needs to know the facts of life.
So I sat my son down, looked him squarely in the eye and said, “This is not a subject I particularly want to discuss, but this year, you’ll have to file a tax return.”
There. I’d put it on the table, along with the 1040EZ form. I heaved a deep sigh and thought of the sweet, innocent youngster he’d once been.
I’ve always known this day would come. Filing your first tax return is a landmark moment in life, one of those rites of passage like the first day of school, learning to drive or spilling hot coffee on yourself at the McDonald’s drive-through. In other words, it’s an experience that leaves its mark. If memory serves (and these days, it often goes on strike), I filed my first tax return in 1972. I don’t know which is more astonishing — the fact that 40 years have elapsed or that I’m still waiting on the refund.
In those distant, pre-Internet, pre-Facebook, pre-Hannity-Limbaugh-Maher days, we weren’t constantly bombarded with warnings about the dangers of taxation. It was easier to shield tender young minds from such a sordid subject. Sure, we all knew that people sometimes “did taxes” within the privacy of their own homes, maybe even on the kitchen table. Sometimes they were married, sometimes not. It was rumored that some, driven to desperation, even engaged the services of professionals. But for the most part, it wasn’t considered a subject for discussion. My father never had the “tax talk” with me. Neither did my mother. Given my suspect math skills, they probably thought it best to simply let nature take its course and hope for the best. Either that or they wanted to have plausible deniability if forced to testify under oath.
A part of me wanted to avoid the issue with my own offspring. But he had graduated from college earlier in the year, had begun earning regular paychecks and was raising awkward questions about “W-2 forms,” “withholding” and “statute of limitations.”
“I’m busy right now,” I’d say. “Ask your mother.”
She cooks everything else in our household. Why not the books?
Once we got past the initial discomfort, however, it wasn’t so bad. We secured the relevant forms, the instruction booklet, a dozen freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils, calculator, extra batteries, a bottle of Excedrin, some Preparation H and the economy size Maalox.
“Always use protection,” I explained. “Al Capone forgot that step, and it didn’t turn out well.”
Before we started, I stressed that the act of tax computation was a momentous occasion, that it should not be entered into on a whim or indulged merely for a few brief minutes of Schedule C passion. And you should never do it when you’ve been drinking.
“This is serious, serious stuff, son,” I said. “That’s why accountants usually look like they just swallowed a can of Drano.”
Then I admonished him to remember the three commandments of tax returns: (1) Always doublecheck your figures; (2) always sign and date your return; and (3) never, ever fudge the facts — except for a few gray areas involving business equipment depreciation and the home office deduction.
“That’s it,” I said. “Let me know if you have questions.”
Twenty minutes later, he was done.
“That wasn’t so bad,” he said.
I’ll confess I got a little choked up. A heart-to-heart talk about the earned income credit will do that to you.
For the record, I’m proud to say, my son filled out the forms all by himself, without any coaching from dad. He did it on his own. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging. I just want to be perfectly clear in case any IRS agents are reading this.
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Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.