The Taxpayer Who Never Was
Ernie Neve, CPA
October 17, 2018
Life is full of ups and downs, and sometimes the downs can be so low that it doesn't feel like there's ever going to be an up again. How many people have dreamed of faking their own death and disappearing under a new identity, never to return to their problems again? It's called "pseudocide," and it's popular enough that novelists have a field day writing thrillers about it. John Grisham pulls some variation of that stunt in half a dozen books, and J.K Rowling, Tom Clancy, and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) have all joined him in that theme.
Faking your death doesn't always work. In sixteenth-century Verona, a young nobleman named Romeo tried it with a deathlike potion, and we all know what happened to him. But that doesn't keep the occasional scammer from trying. Most famously, rock-and-roll legend Elvis Presley faked his death, and supported himself by entering Elvis impersonator contests. (He always laughed when he didn't win.) And if you have really valuable information on a really bad guy, the witness protection program will even establish your new identity for you!
There's no law that says you can't fake your death to go ride off into the sunset. But we got to wondering . . . what would our friends at the IRS think about that plan?
Let's start with your life insurance benefits. Code Section 101 says gross income doesn't include amounts your beneficiaries receive "if such amounts are paid by reason of the death of the insured." We're splitting hairs here, but wouldn't they still owe the tax if you aren't really dead? Or would they be safe because the insurance company paid them by reason of your death, even if you're not? (You can be sure that somewhere in America, there's an underemployed lawyer ready to bill by the hour to answer that question!)
Next, let's look at estate tax. Assuming your gross estate is over $11.18 million, and the rest of the world really believes you're dead, at some point your executor will file a return and pay 40% of the taxable amount above that threshold. What's for the IRS to complain about? But come on, folks. While it's true that money can't buy happiness, it can solve a lot of the problems that cause unhappiness. So how many people with $11.18 million are really going to fake their own death in the first place?
(While we're on the topic of estate taxes, it's worth mentioning that the current threshold means that the IRS gets only a couple thousand returns per year now anyway. As recently as 1997, when the threshold was just $600,000, they got 90,000 of them. That's one perk of working in the trusts and estates field: just because the client dies doesn't mean you have to stop billing them.)
Finally, let's talk about anything you make after you pull your David Copperfield act. You'll earn it under a new name and social security number . . . but as long as you've set up your new identity properly, the IRS should be happy getting their usual share. Of course, there's that whole "identity fraud" problem. But hey, nobody said this would be easy!
Look, if life throws you a beanball, we understand the temptation to start fresh. But you will wind up crossing the line into fraud at some point. So if you're having a really bad day, can we suggest an easier (and perfectly legal) alternative? Come to us for a plan to pay less tax, and see if we can give you more reasons to enjoy the life you already have!