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Pay your full tax liability & state dings you for $17.31 more
dennis Wyatt web

I owe the State of California $17.31.

It's not because I didn't pay the correct income tax this year, nor is it because I paid my taxes after April 15.

I was levied a $17.31 penalty by the State Franchise Tax Board because I did not pay enough estimated taxes before the legal due date of April 15.

I understand the necessity of taxes. I will grumble when I owe money but I appreciate most of the time what I and other Californians get in return.

That said, I believe taxes should hurt.

By that I mean you should be acutely aware of what government costs you. I don't like the idea of the state silently taking money from me every two weeks mainly because it is easy to forget that you're paying it. I find no joy in getting a refund from the state or federal government since it means they took more from me than what my legally required tax payment is. I'm getting my own money back with no interest plus I can't penalize the state for taking too much.

It is why I never want my deductions to equal or be more than what my tax at year's end will be.

When Ronald Reagan was governor of California a reporter asked him why he didn't support increasing withholding amounts after the legislature has passed a significant state income tax hike. His short answer: "Taxes are supposed to hurt."

Naturally his foes went off on a tangent saying he was being cruel to the working class. His point was clear: If at least once a year we don't physically write out a check and send money to Sacramento we don't give much thought to what is siphoned out our paycheck. The price we pay in taxes is pretty much now an abstract as it is pennies here while shopping, money taken out of our paycheck before it reaches our pocket, or is buried in the price of goods such as gas.

What got me into trouble with Sacramento wasn't paycheck withholding. It was the inheritance of a share of a 401K account my brother had. I was ambivalent at best about taking the money for personal reasons. But as it was coming up to the fifth year of his passing, I had no desire for the state of California to get all of the money. And since the 401K rules didn't allow a rollover into my account as I wasn't a surviving spouse, I took the money from the account, meaning there would be early withdrawal penalty and taxes to pay. The financial firm he used was set up to allow me to designate how much money - if any - I wanted sent to Uncle Sam to cover the penalty and additional taxes upfront. There was no such mechanism for the state.

I put the money in a savings account to pay Sacramento when April 15 rolled around.

I ended up sending Sacramento a sizable check - $2,444. Again, I'm not complaining as it was taxes on money I didn't expect to receive and it wasn't an additional tax on something I earned.

But based on the amount of the penalty it was pretty clear I was close to the parameters the state had sent to make people pay the price for not sending them money in quarterly installments. The system, by the way, wasn't developed specifically for targeting taxpayers whose income is primarily from a paycheck. The penalty system was set up to go after the self-employed and corporations that failed to pay enough estimated taxes three, six and nine months in advance of the legal due date.

This happened to me once before 30 years ago.

I had received payment for a debt a company owed me for commercial photography work I did for a sales brochure. I learned the hard way that some people will pay you as you bill them then lull you into being comfortable with the arrangement then "stick" you on the last major bill you send them.

The partner who "stuck" me happened to pass away three years after I finally gave up trying to collect the money. The remaining partner wanted me to do work for the company again but when I explained to him why I wasn't interested and that I had gotten out if the business, he looked into it. He ended up sending me a check for the balance.

By then I no longer was doing commercial photography. And, for the record, I had not written off the debt. When I got the check I didn't put legitimate deductions against it for expenses. The $2,100 I got covered about $1,500 I spent to do the job. But instead of reducing my tax liability I reported it as if it was 100 percent income.

The accountant I was using at the time thought I was a tad nuts but agreed that it would be cleaner than trying to piece together the legitimate deductions against the gross amount given I had closed the books on the business.

I paid perhaps $150 more in taxes than I needed to do.

For my "generosity" I got a bill from the state Franchise Tax Board demanding I pay $9.81 for failure to pay enough advance withholding taxes.

That time I fought it and won.

For the current $17.31 penalty I'm just going to pay knowing full well that to charge me the penalty cost the state close to $25.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.