The Taxpayer Who Never Was

10/9/2018
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.

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? 

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!