Trying to figure out my income tax this year has been about as challenging as being a contestant on Jeopardy.
After my husband passed away nearly 11 years ago, I gathered up all of my paperwork at tax time and headed to H&R Block. As I sat there, answering the endless list of questions the employee, in an insomnia-inducing tone, read to me from her computer screen, I began to think, "Heck, if I had that computer program she's using, I could do this myself.”
I later found out, after I paid $400 to H&R Block, they did offer that same computer program for only $65. So every year since then, I’ve been using it to prepare my taxes...and have had no problems whatsoever.
The problem this year began when I received the 1099-R form for my late husband’s pension – better known as my annuity – from the government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM). There's a box on the form that says “employee contributions," and that box has listed an amount of $79,000 every year since my husband retired back in 2007. I mean, it’s the total amount he contributed toward his retirement while he worked there. There's no reason for it to change.
At least I didn't think there was...until now.
On this particular 1099-R form it says "unknown" under employee contributions.
A million thoughts raced through my mind when I saw that. The first was that maybe the amount of the contribution was "unknown" to them, but I knew what it was - $79,000, the same as it always had been for the past 16 years! My second thought was perhaps my husband somehow had returned from the grave and once again was “contributing.”
I soon learned, as I prepared my taxes, the word “unknown" is not allowed on the IRS form – it has to be an actual number.
I noticed a toll-free number listed on the H&R Block program that said “We’re here to help!" So I called it, fully expecting to be on hold for an hour while being tortured with endless choruses of bad music. To my surprise, a woman immediately answered.I explained the situation to her and asked what I should do with the “unknown” box. There was silence on the other end. Then, after telling me she didn't know, she had no idea why it would be unknown, and it made no sense to her, she said she would have a tax professional call me back. She put me on hold for a moment and then said Ernest would be calling me between 1:45 and 2:00. So I waited by the phone.
At 4:15, I still was waiting. So I called back. Once again, my call was answered right away, by a different woman. She explained that it often takes over two hours after the designated time for a tax pro to call because it all depends on how long the person before me takes with his or her questions. She said she would double check, however.
She put me on hold, then returned and said, “Oh…it looks like your call was accidentally canceled. Unfortunately, everyone is booked up now until tomorrow morning."
Let’s just say I wasn’t dancing with joy at that moment.
So she rescheduled the call for 10:30 the next morning. I couldn’t understand the name of the tax pro she said would be calling me, but it sounded something like "Hahmah." I immediately had the feeling the person was someone whose English probably would be a real challenge to understand.
And unfortunately I was right.
The call came promptly at 10:30 AM, and the woman, as anticipated, had a very heavy accent. I asked my question and she replied, “I don't know." Then said nothing. I repeated the question, using different wording. Again she said she didn't know. More silence. So I finally asked her what I should do. She told me to call Block's toll-free helpline number again.
I called and talked to yet another employee, who said she would connect me to a tax specialist. I was transferred to a woman who listened to my question and then said, "That sounds like a tax question.”
She then explained she was a software specialist, not a tax one. She said if she were me, she either would contact my nearest H&R Block office or the IRS.
I looked up the number of the nearest H&R Block office, but the online reviews, which included such glowing comments as "The employee put us down, then reprimanded us as if we were children, and didn't help us at all," and "If I could give minus-stars, I would," made me decide against calling them
So, because I was so desperate at that point, I called the IRS, even though past experience had taught me it probably would be less painful to have my appendix removed with a butter knife while I was fully awake.
The woman who assisted me was about as warm and personable as a boa constrictor. She snapped at me, made me feel like a drooling idiot, and when I said I was using H&R Block's software, she abruptly cut me off in mid-sentence and said, “I don’t know anything about their forms! They aren't affiliated with us at all."
I said, “But aren’t the forms submitted to the IRS all alike? Isn’t a 1040 a 1040?"
She finally said, “Contact the OPM. They are the only ones who know why they suddenly put ‘unknown' in the box. How would anyone else know?”
When I sounded discouraged, she said, in a suddenly overly friendly, cheerful voice that dripped with sarcasm, “Have a nice day! Glad I could help!”
I actually flung my phone.
But then I picked it up and called OPM…about 35 times. And each time, I heard the same recorded message saying they were experiencing a large volume of calls and to try again later.
So I’m at the point now where I’m going to raise the white flag of surrender and just enter the $79,000 I've always entered in the "contributions" box and file my taxes, come what may. H&R Block states if anyone who uses their program gets audited by the IRS, they will be right there, in person, to help.
Judging from all of the “help" I’ve received from them thus far, I’ve decided not to buy any new clothes this year…because I'll probably be wearing prison orange very soon.
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Sally Breslin is an award-winning syndicated columnist who has written regularly for newspapers and magazines all of her adult life. She is the author of several novels in a variety of genres, from humor and romance to science-fiction. Contact her at: email@example.com.