Death and Taxes

A brief personal history

Photo: Ben Britten/Flickr

2010

Filing status: Single
Total income: $2,538
Effective and marginal federal tax rate: 0%
Refund: $106

This year, I made a little money while working on a research study during the summer between my first and second years of medical school. I used most of the cash to apply for a visa to bring my fiancé into the United States. My parents quickly realized how complicated this process would be, and were worried that it could derail my medical training. They hired me a lawyer.

My parents claimed me as a dependent. I owed no taxes on my summer earnings.

2011

Filing Status: Married, dependents
Total Income: $0

My fiancé’s visa was granted, and once he entered the United States, we were required to marry within 90 days. We had a very tender and fun wedding on the night before New Years Eve. Due to visa policies, only my side of the family was able to attend.

I’d had no free time to make any money over the course of the year. Neither my husband nor I had any earnings to report in the United States, and we did not file returns.

2012

Filing Status: Married, dependents
Total Income: $0

Again, we made no money, and did not file returns.

2013

Filing status: Married, filing separately
Total income: approximately $20,000

I keep careful records of everything, but I cannot find my 2013 return. I had a lot of things going on.

I would have gotten a sizable return, because I started working in July. However, I owed most of it back in the form of an IRA-related fee.

In 2013, I graduated from medical school and moved across the country with my husband to start residency. During the process of the move, I received an inheritance from my grandmother (she had passed away several years earlier, apparently leaving money for me entrusted to my mother, who did not tell me about it until she gave me a check that summer). At age 27, as a new bread-winner and with no retirement savings, I used the inheritance in the most responsible way that I could imagine — I opened up a Roth IRA and fully funded it with $5,500.

During the process of the move, I became unexpectedly pregnant. Meanwhile, my relationship with my husband was falling apart. It was becoming quite clear that, although I loved him very much and had poured so much of myself into our relationship, he still felt unloved, and even the most banal encounters would provoke his anger and jealousy. We had tried counseling in the spring, but it hadn’t helped. He had sunk into paranoia and seemed to enjoy treating me with cruelty. Things were very bad.

I knew this was not a healthy situation for a pregnancy or a baby (and a statistic from medical school kept coming to mind: abuse tends to escalate during pregnancies). He was so opposed to abortion that I could not end the pregnancy unless I was prepared to also end the relationship. In fact, when I’d confided in him that I was worried about risk for miscarriage, he informed me that he believed all miscarriages were intentional on the part of the mother, and that he would never forgive me if I lost the pregnancy for any reason. Five weeks into pregnancy and one week into residency, I kicked him out. I scheduled an abortion for one of my two days off during the month of July. When that day came, I did not go. I told my friends and family members that I was pregnant, and getting divorced.

At about 37 weeks pregnant, I began to have frequent and strong contractions. At 38 weeks, my doctor told me to stay home from work and rest until the baby was born. I used the spare time to file my taxes online, while rocking on an exercise ball and watching the 2014 Winter Olympics (internally debating whether or not each sport was too dangerous for my son to participate in).

I learned that because my soon-to-be-ex-husband and I had lived together for more than 6 months but were filing separately, I was ineligible for the Roth IRA that I had opened. I had to close the IRA, and pay a $500 fine — $500 of my dead grandmother’s money, which I had so carefully tried to steward. This amounted to more than 2% of my gross income for 2013. My CPA father looked over my forms, researched the code and confirmed that I had to pay. I was wracked with guilt and sorrow.

2014

Filing status: Head of household, one dependent
Total Income: $44,777
Effective federal tax rate: 5 percent
Marginal federal tax rate: 15 percent
Refund: $1,628 federal, $702 state

My son was eventually born by c-section, and only then did it become clear why my labor had been so prolonged: my son’s head had become extremely large. He was otherwise well-appearing at first, but quickly became very ill. He was transferred to another hospital, and I learned that he had developed a very rare brain tumor and, by the time the appropriate specialists were contacted, he was already beyond any hope of savior.

I was not eligible for FMLA because I’d been employed for less than 12 months. I used up my residency elective time, and was able to return to work on a modified schedule. I was grief-stricken and anemic, with multiple post-surgical complications and very little extra energy. Seeing patients in the same location that I had received care was pure torture, but there didn’t seem to be any better option. I needed to keep my insurance, because I needed a lot of therapy to help me make sense of everything that had happened, and begin to feel safe and at home in my own body again. I will never “move on”, but I managed to keep moving.

My divorce was finalized in the summer. I kept paying my ex-husband’s health insurance because I didn’t want him to run afoul of the ACA mandate.

I couldn’t bear to do my taxes this year. I sent my W2 to my parents, and they filed for me. My son had lived outside my body for one day, which was enough to qualify for a social security number (in fact, any infant born with a heartbeat can qualify for a social security number; unfortunately, stillborn infants do not, even at full term, although some states do offer one-time tax credits for stillborn babies). My son was listed as my dependent for the year, and I received a child tax credit. I needed the money. My son’s birth and brief life, along with his death and my own physical and emotional recovery, were all at least as financially costly to me as they would have been if he had lived with me the whole year (or, I should also mention, as they would have been if he had been stillborn).

2015:

Filing status: single, no dependents
Total Income: $50,687
Effective federal tax rate: 12 percent
Marginal federal tax rate: 25 percent
Owed: $1,130 federal, $818 state

This was the first year that I felt like I was paying taxes like a typical young adult; finally, I had a steady and straightforward income, and my filing status was not wrought with emotional complications — or, at least, it was less wrought compared to previous years. Among all the calls I had to keep track of regarding my son (for example, I had to apply for his health insurance then immediately cancel it, and I had to cancel his daycare reservation — my mom did that one for me because it was too awful), I’d forgotten to inform my payroll department to adjust my withholding for the fact that I no longer had a dependent. As a result, I had enormously underpaid and owed a huge amount. There would have been a penalty associated with this underpayment, but I filed a waiver and received an exemption to the fine due to “casualty, disaster or other unusual circumstance”.

I had also forgotten to cancel my ex-husband’s health insurance, even though he now lived outside the country. Even though I looked over my monthly pay stub each month, I didn’t notice this oversight until I was filling out my tax return.

2016

Filing status: single, no dependents
Total income: $101,399
Effective federal tax rate: 18 percent
Marginal federal tax rate: 25 percent
Owed: $1,169 federal, $641 state

This year, I graduated from residency and started a new job. My underpayment is largely related to a payout from my previous employer for unused vacation time. My current withholding situation seems about right, so hopefully I won’t owe so much next year.

I still paid my ex-husband’s health insurance for the early part of the year, until I finally remembered to cancel it. By the end of the year, my new partner had moved in with me after 18 months of dating, and my employer began sponsoring his health insurance. We talk about marriage occasionally, and I have to admit that a wedding would be fun. But, after everything that I’ve been through, I’m weighing the tax implications and other legal factors before I make any decisions.

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