- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2001

Last fall the Internal Revenue Service sent ominous letters advising some 2.4 million married couples that the names on their 1999 tax returns did not match their Social Security numbers. "We must have the spouses correct name and identifying number on your next return," says the IRS letter. Otherwise, your return will bounce, and your refund will be delayed until you can straighten it out.
According to IRS statistics, nearly 50 million couples file joint returns each year. And according to the National Census of Health Statistics, almost 2.5 million more couples get married each year. But only about 5 percent of women keep their birth names when they get married. Most of the rest take their husbands last name, although some keep their birth name as a middle name, according to Professor Laurie K. Scheuble of Doane College in Nebraska.
In short, about 95 percent of women change their names when they get married, and many just dont realize that they are supposed to inform the Social Security Administration of those name changes.
So its no surprise that 2.4 million couples got it wrong on their 1999 income tax returns. Starting this year, the IRS will bounce those returns. "The IRS is doing the dirty work, but the real culprit is the Social Security Administration," says Washington tax attorney Marjorie OConnell. "The Social Security Administration refused to let the IRS enclose the Social Security change-of-name form with the IRS letter," she added.
Still, there is plenty of blame to go around. For one thing, the IRS never really seemed to care about mismatched Social Security numbers before. The Treasury was happy to take money from Whats-her-name, and it even issued refunds to Mr. and Mrs. Who-is-it, as long as Mr. Who-is-its name matched his Social Security number.
But now the IRS is cross-checking both spouses names and Social Security numbers against the Social Security Administrations list. If they didnt match last year, you got the IRS letter. And, if they dont match this year, you wont get your refund at least not until you can straighten it out. "Without the correct name and identifying number, we cant allow the personal exemption, the earned income credit, or both," says the IRS letter. In addition, the IRS may reclassify the return as single or head of household in effect annulling your marriage for tax purposes.
It probably does make sense for the IRS to try to match up taxpayers and their Social Security numbers. After the Tax Reform Act of 1986 required us to include on our tax returns the Social Security numbers of our dependents, some seven million dependents disappeared from the tax rolls. (Dont look for those lost kids on milk cartons.)
So the IRS should check on the Social Security numbers of taxpayers and their spouses. The IRS might even catch a couple hundred thousand unmarried taxpayers who are incorrectly filing joint returns with real or imaginary lovers.
But I think it should work both ways. If the IRS misspells your name or misprints your Social Security number on the preprinted label it includes in the Form 1040 package it sends you as a New Years present each year, you shouldnt have to pay taxes that year at least not until the IRS straightens it out.
I figure, Id be a big winner. My wife kept her own name when we got married. So she never even had to file a change-of-name form with the Social Security Administration. But in our now 16 years of joint-filing bliss, the IRS has still managed to misspell her name on those labels at least four times. Each time, we have carefully printed our never-changed names and Social Security numbers on our tax return.
Then, we wait to see if the IRS can get it right on the next years preprinted label.
Yup, I think the IRS should give us a tax break every time it misspells one of our names or misprint one of our Social Security numbers. Heck, some of us might even change our names back to what they were in the "old country." For example, my Russian great-grandfather was born Batsolal Simolevitch. When he came to America in 1897, the immigration officials at Ellis Island said "okay Charlie" and entered his name as Charles Forman. You see, they couldnt spell his name then, and Im willing to bet that the IRS cant spell it now.

Jon Forman is a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma.

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