Death and taxes

In the ‘hold-on-and-wait-your-turn’ category of official absurdity, the Canada Revenue Agency recently declared a New Brunswick man dead before serving his ‘estate’ with a bill totaling $500. The problem was (and is) Peter Harwerth of Campobello Island, 64 years young, is still alive and kicking. And, not for nothing, he doesn’t yet have a post-mortem dime to ding.

I know it’s tax time, people. I know the nation faces rolling deficits that would make even the most progressive NDPer weep. But, honestly, have we really come to this?

According to Simon Davis, writing for last summer, “Each year, about 1,000 living people are erroneously added to the Death Master File, a database of every American who has died since 1936. A few weeks ago, Barbara Murphy was having dinner with her husband at a restaurant in Utah when her credit card was declined. Her husband paid the bill, and when they got home, Murphy’s granddaughter called the bank to see what was wrong. ‘Of course, it’s been declined,’ the bank’s representative told her. ‘She’s been dead for two years.’”

The piece continues: “When Murphy was listed as dead, her bank flagged the activity in her account as fraud. The bank has since unfrozen her account, but now Social Security is trying to recoup two years of payments – about $20,000 – that it claims shouldn’t have been paid out since she is listed as dead. She’s now contacted a lawyer and gone public, hoping to apply pressure for a quicker resolution. She (said) she’s been getting calls from all over the country from others in the same predicament.”

If you think errors in property assessments in New Brunswick are infuriating, walk a mile in Ms. Murphy’s and Mr. Harwerth’s imaginary funereal slippers. This just might be the ultimate example of identity theft, as in: You don’t exist and I have a piece of paper to prove it.

As Mr. Harwerth told the Telegraph-Journal’s Colin McPhail earlier this week, “We (my wife and I) were really amazed that this could happen. I’ve never received a letter assuming I was dead, so this was a real shocker.” Recounting his ‘posthumous’ conversation with a CRA agent, he added, “How can it be that I am a deceased person when I’m talking to you?”

Well, you’d be surprised. The degree to which some people in officialdom want others to get off the planet is simply breathtaking. Writes’s Mr. Davis: “In a 2015 Senate hearing, Alabama resident Judy Rivers described the harrowing ordeal she faced after she was added to the DMF in 2008. Even though she had about $80,000 in her bank account, the bank froze the funds because the account was marked for fraud. Every time she needed to apply for something – a credit card, a job, an apartment – she was declined, since her ‘identity could not be confirmed,’ or her ‘social security number was inactive.’ Rivers ended up living in her car, and then later in a trailer, struggling to find employment beyond low-wage work, despite having a long and impressive résumé.”

On the other hand, knowing that you will be dinged one day by the tax man for the temerity of dying, take a note from this 2004 item in the U.K.’s Telegraph: “The widow of an expert on vintage shotguns had her husband’s ashes loaded into cartridges and used by friends for the last shoot of the season. Joanna Booth (asked) a cartridge company to mix the ashes of her husband James with traditional shot.”

That’s right. Go out with a bang, not a whimper.


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