If you want a good laugh, read the Internal Revenue Service's "Tax Guide 2010 for Individuals."
I'm not kidding. It's hysterical. And not because I'm losing it over the ticking tax deadline approaching at midnight tonight.
Only the IRS could write this with a straight face: "Stolen property. If you steal property, you must report its fair market value in your income in the year you steal it unless in the same year, you returned it to its rightful owner."
So watch out, thieves. The taxman cometh. Dirty politicians and drug dealers are on the hook, too. You must report your bribes, kickbacks and illegal drug profits on your 2010 Form 1040.
Oh, you're honest, you say? You're in for even more confusion. Good luck trying to figure out the tangled knot our federal and state tax systems have become.
The tax code is so convoluted, it takes 295 pages to explain how most people should do their federal income returns. And the booklet doesn't even get into what to do if you own a small business or earn money doing complex things such as baby sitting or selling crafts. For those, the IRS-recommended reading list includes Publications 334, 535 and 587.
Legislators have wheeled and dealed their way into thousands of pages of loopholes and exemptions as they've debated through the years over who should bear the cost of government.
And we're the ones left scratching our heads trying to figure it all out.
Take, for instance, the explanation on Page 168 of when you can deduct the cost of damage or theft. Say you've endured a shipwreck or a sonic boom. That's deductible. But if termites eat through your home, you're out of luck.
And in case you don't understand what "unexpected and unusual" means, the IRS offers this informative example: "Your antique oriental rug was damaged by your new puppy before it was housebroken. Because the damage was not unexpected and unusual, the loss is not deductible as a casualty loss."
If you're a parent, you're probably quite familiar with this next one.
There are two chapters and 15 pages on figuring out when and how having children will earn you a tax credit. And, boy, does the IRS plan for all contingencies. If your child has been kidnapped, has slept over at a friend's house or has gone away to summer camp, the tax guide has an answer for you.
And this is the booklet just for ordinary people. It doesn't get into all the exemptions, deductibles and credits available to industries that have lobbied Congress for tax breaks.
If, after all your hard work on your 2010 return, you still don't feel like you've paid enough, the IRS has an idea for you. Why not send the government a gift?
Page 15 explains exactly how to make a contribution to help pay down our mounting public debt. That's right. You just simply add a second check to the envelope with your tax return.
Last year, the Bureau of the Public Debt received $2.8 million in gifts this way. Silly me, for thinking that's what my taxes went toward.
But the parts of IRS Publication 17 that are really designed to catch your attention are the triangle "caution" symbols warning that because Congress didn't get its act together before the booklet was finished, the rules might actually be different than what's stated.
Each one starts off with, "At the time this publication went to print, Congress was considering legislation that would "
I'd like to send them back my tax return with a note, "At the time this form was filled out, this simple journalist was considering a tax revolt."
Luckily, I've got an excellent accountant to help interpret the jumble of rules.