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Spoofs & Satire

Hoping for a Safe Return

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: Your child goes missing only days before you try and claim him as a dependent on your tax return. A tale of loss and capital gains.

Topic 357—Tax Information for Parents of Kidnapped Children: You may claim a kidnapped child as your dependent if the following requirement [is] met: The child must be presumed by law enforcement to have been kidnapped by someone who is not a member of your family or a member of the child’s family… —irs.gov, 2005 1040 Instructions

My wife came home from work on a Tuesday, peered into the kitchen, and asked where our Danny was. Not at the neighbors, not in his room, not in the crawlspace again. Danny was gone. She looked at me, and we shared that immediate and indescribable chill of every parent’s worst nightmare: Your son’s been kidnapped, and you don’t know if you can still take him as a tax deduction.

When something like this happens, there are two things you do right away; Dr. Spock is pretty clear on this. Make sure it wasn’t a family member, and make sure you have your W-2s lined up. If you’re doing Schedule D or some such, that just complicates things. Better not to take capital gains if you think your child might be kidnapped that tax year.

We knew what to do—parents just know—and so we got on the phone, but our accountant didn’t answer! You start off scared, obviously. But when your kid is missing and your accountant can’t advise on the implications for your 1040, well, that’s when you lose your stomach. That’s when it becomes all too real.

We were troopers; we tried to deal with it on our own. Suzy consulted the Turbo Tax FAQ. We went to Publication 501. We printed out Tax Topic 354. None of them helped. And my God, it was as if Publication 678 was written for aliens! Total dismay. All of a sudden, the alternative minimum tax became a matter of concern. Did Danny’s kidnapping change that, too? Would our e-file be put in jeopardy?

After leaving three messages for the accountant, we figured, frantically—and I’ll never forget this—we’d better go off-script and call the police. Fortunately, two detectives got to our walk-up within the hour. But they came in guns blazing, so to speak, with their own questions. Did we have family in the area? Was Danny in contact with any cousins, any uncles, etc.? Were we planning to itemize or take standard deductions? Had we already estimated our return with the child tax credit included?

It didn’t look like Danny was kidnapped by family, but we still didn’t have a clear sense of the deduction policy. We’re sitting in the living room, in shock, these detectives come in, no nonsense, and yes, it took us aback. There, I’ve said it. It took us aback. We needed their help, of course, but the tone, their insinuations. It was like judge, jury, and executioner all right there on the settee. If cable television has taught us anything, it’s that the first moments of a kidnapping matter the most. Why were they wasting their time in our house? That was the one place our little Danny wasn’t! Why weren’t they contacting H&R Block? Why weren’t they asking to see our state returns from 2001-2005?

Suzy was screaming the whole time, “We need to get in touch with our extended family! What are we sitting around for?” Eventually, after picking over the veggie plate we put out, the detectives listened and set up a phone chain.

I called my sister in Teaneck first:

“Hey, uhm, Leah, how you been? How are Bill and the kids?”
“Oh hi, Ben, did you talk to Ma this week? She keeps calling about…”
“No, no, but hey, Lee, did you kidnap Danny?”
“Whuh? No, God no. Bill’s been upstairs trying to fix the modem all afternoon.”
“Oh, OK. Well, I was just calling to get Uncle Mort’s number. You have that?”

[…]

“Uncle Mort, hi, it’s Ben!”

The calls yielded little. Which was good and bad. It didn’t look like Danny was kidnapped by family, but we still didn’t have a clear sense of the deduction policy. It just opened up a new slew of questions, a new phase of grief. Will it affect our direct deposit options? Can we resolve this before the 15th? And if not, when should we petition for an extension?

And this is what I’m here to say: Nobody tells you these things. There are no answers. I think the lesson for us was that no matter how solidly you prepare, you just can never prepare completely. If you petition for an extension too early, well, how do you know you won’t find your kid first? Then you’re simply a late filer, plain and simple. But if you petition too late, well, then it’s just late, you have to take the late penalty. You’ve got no excuse.

The whole situation has been nothing but heartache. True, our case may have been more dire than typical—we’d already written a check to the landscaper to reseed the backyard and line our drainage swale with river rock—a check written ahead of a tax return now in danger! Believe me, there’s no cut-and-dried guide for parenting.

And so here we are, Suzy surfing irs.gov and searching new keywords on our laptop as the Bobcat starts re-grading the side yard, preparing it for new St. Augustine, and I stare longingly out the bay window, wondering, is that the mailman with our return?

Benjamin R. Cohen teaches at the University of Virginia and lives outside Charlottesville with his family. He is the author of Notes From the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside (2009). More by Benjamin R. Cohen