Tax Law Special Report: April 2013
More Creative Tax Ideas – The “Rain Tax”

I recently wrote in this space about a proposal for a “hoarder’s tax” that would be imposed on taxpayers who have more than a certain amount of money in the bank.  That idea does not appear to have gone anywhere, so far.

Another, even more creative tax idea that is apparently already in place has just started to get widespread attention. Here’s the explanation provided by a columnist in the Maryland Community News Online on April 5 (I found it via the TaxProf Blog):

In 2010 the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency ordered Maryland to reduce stormwater runoff into the Chesapeake Bay so that nitrogen levels fall 22 percent and phosphorus falls 15 percent from current amounts. The price tag: $14.8 billion.

And where do we get the $14.8 billion? By taxing so-called “impervious surfaces,” anything that prevents rain water from seeping into the earth (roofs, driveways, patios, sidewalks, etc.) thereby causing stormwater run off. In other words, a rain tax.

To raise funds for this purpose, the state in turn placed the burden on its ten largest counties.  The counties will levy the tax along with property taxes, according to the columnist.

The columnist also suggests that the counties will figure the tax based on satellite pictures, although I think they could just as easily do it from building permit records.  After all, if the county knows how big your house is, and they know what other structures (including pavement) you have on your property, either from building permit records or from property tax appraisals (and they do), then they know how large your “impervious surfaces” are.

So what this levy really does is tax a particular category of property improvements, i.e. those that supposedly contribute to stormwater runoff.  I guess that it is possible for engineers to estimate the impact of “impervious surfaces” on stormwater runoff, but I can’t help thinking that such calculations would be pretty inexact.

It almost seems like the people who came up with the idea of reducing stormwater runoff think there wouldn’t be any runoff if there were no houses or pavement.  Again, I guess there are engineering models for this, but how accurate could they be?  Do the people who thought up this tax think that before there were buildings and pavement, there weren’t any streams or rivers?

Then there’s the fact that this tax on “impervious surfaces” is imposed on all non-government property owners, including non-profit and religious organizations.  Since churches, and non-profits like hospitals, tend to have large buildings and parking lots, it seems to me that the tax on them could be significant.  What’s worse, they really can’t reduce the impact of the tax by reducing the size of their buildings or parking lots.  Buildings codes require that buildings be a certain size to accommodate a given number of people.  The same codes require that parking lots be large enough to accommodate the occupancy of the buildings they serve.  Churches and non-profits aren’t likely to build buildings and parking lots that are bigger than they need, and they aren’t likely to be able to reduce the size of their existing buildings and parking lots.

So, voila, a tax that an individual taxpayer really can’t do much to reduce (what is a homeowner going to do, demolish their driveway?) to address a problem that may or may not be significantly impacted by the objects of the tax.  But you gotta give the taxers points for creativity.

More About Estate Planning For Your Internet Presence (But Still No Clear Answers)

 Following my January report on this topic, another newspaper article appeared from the Associated Press, covering much of the same ground that was covered in the Wall Street Journal article that I mentioned.  Unfortunately, there are still no clear answers about what you can or should do in your estate plan to plan for what happens to material that you have placed in the custody of internet service providers.

The Associated Press article (it appeared in the Arizona Daily Star on March 10) does mention one possibly complicating factor that I don’t think was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal Article.  There is a federal law known as the Stored Communications Act that makes rules about access to electronically stored information, including criminal penalties for gaining unauthorized access to such information.  That law, and the terms of service agreements that govern your use of internet service providers’ services, will probably overrule anything that you put in your estate plan.

As I suggested before, the internet service providers’ terms of service may or may not allow someone else to retrieve the manuscripts of your unpublished bestselling novels if you are deceased.  So the first thing to do is store anything valuable, like the manuscripts of your unpublished novels, or your unrecorded hit songs, in more than one place, including a place where someone you trust can get access to it without needing permission from anyone else.

By the way, this is advice I give routinely concerning tangible items.  Don’t store your estate plan documents, or your valuable tangible personal property, so securely that no one else can find it or get to it if you are deceased.  If you’re going to keep those items in your safe, give the combination to someone you trust.  If you’re going to keep them in a safe deposit box at the bank, make sure someone else is authorized to get into the box and knows where you keep the key.  And always tell your lawyer where you keep your estate plan documents.

As for your Facebook or Google Plus or other social media pages that probably don’t have any monetary value but that you may want to preserve (or others may want to preserve for you), why not save screen shots on a thumb drive?  Easy, inexpensive, and avoids all the grief that is related in these news items about parents trying to retrieve the online presence of their deceased children.

In the coming months I will address more substantive questions about what to do to include intellectual property in your estate plan, so stay tuned.



                   A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.

 Douglas Adams , English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 – 2001)