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2.4 MILLION FILERS MUST CORRECT SPOUSE'S I.D. ON TAX RETURNS

Some 2.4 million married couples got a warning letter from the IRS last year. It said that your spouse's Social Security number looked wrong on your 1999 returns.

Well, maybe so. But, as I've recently learned, maybe not. Either way, you have a problem that has to be put right. Otherwise, this year's tax return could be in trouble.

The IRS isn't questioning the first spouse named on these joint returns, usually the husband. What doesn't check out is the second spouse, usually the wife. The name doesn't match with the Social Security number.

So the IRS wonders: Is the spouse for real?

If you haven't proved who you are by the time you send in your tax return for the year 2000, the IRS will reject you. You'll lose the spouse's personal exemption. You also won't be eligible for the marital earned income tax credit.

To get those tax breaks back, you'll have to prove who you are.

Here's what's going on:

The IRS double-checks the names on tax returns, to be sure they're real people. It runs everybody you report against the records held in the Social Security office. Even infants have Social Security numbers today.

When the checking process started, the government focused on dependents -- looking for people who took deductions for children they didn't have. (You can't deduct Molly, your dog, unless you can get her a Social Security number.)

A couple of years ago, the IRS started checking spouses' names, but only on tax returns filed electronically.

Last year, the spouse check expanded to paper returns. In 2.4 million cases, the spouse's name and Social Security number didn't appear to match.

One of five things could have happened.

Maybe you erred. If so, be sure that the Social Security number is right when you file this year.

Maybe you're cheating. Sometimes taxpayers pluck a "spouse" out of thin air, to get the lower marital tax rates.

Maybe the wife changed her name when she married but never told Social Security. So the name on the tax return doesn't match her Social Security number.

Maybe the wife kept her maiden name but put her married name on the tax return.

And maybe the IRS simply got it wrong.

I first heard about these questions from Judy, a New York City woman who doesn't want to be identified. She has been married and filing jointly with her husband for 21 years.

Judy has always used her maiden name, professionally and personally. There was nothing wrong with her tax reporting. The Social Security number was right.

But when she called the IRS, she got a shock. She was advised to change her name!

The IRS representative told her to hyphenate--join her husband's name to her maiden name. That way, the computers would know who she was.

"I was stunned," Judy told me. No law requires a married women to use her husband's name. Is the IRS a christening bureau?

IRS spokesperson Don Roberts doesn't know why Judy got the warning letter. She's entitled to use her maiden name on her joint return. Marital names don't have to match.

The computers are checking only Social Security numbers. They can't tell whether a couple is actually married.

If Judy ignores the letter, however, she risks losing her spousal exemption. Roberts advised her -- and anyone else in her position -- to attach a copy of her Social Security card to her tax return. Include the IRS letter and a note pointing out that the Social Security number is right.

Once the IRS verifies the number, Judy shouldn't get any more letters, Roberts says.

But who among us still has the Social Security card that was issued all too many years ago? Judy has applied for a new one.

Another New York woman, call her Pat Smith, told a similar story.

Pat has been married and filing jointly for almost 19 years. She uses her maiden name professionally and on her Social Security record. But she has been putting her maiden name plus her married name -- Pat Smith Jones -- on her tax return.

She, too, got the letter and was also advised to hyphenate. Pat decided to do it. In the future, she'll be Pat Smith-Jones on her tax return.

She doesn't have to change her Social Security records, Roberts says. The computer will pick up the Smith part of her new, hyphenated name and confirm her Social Security number.

If Pat wanted, she could file her joint return as plain Pat Smith. But then she'd have to find her old Social Security card.

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