I find it slightly bizarre that the income tax department (HMRC, or in full, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, as they are now) here in Britain feels the need to advertise. It’s not like you have a choice or even that they offer ‘bargain rates’ or ‘10% off with a coupon’. They don’t even have a snappy slogan like ‘Income Tax – eight out of ten people prefer to pay it’ or ‘Income Tax – because you’re worth it (where ‘it’ is about 30% of your income)’ or even ‘Tax – Here Weego’*.
No, we have news readers and science presenters telling us that ‘Tax isn’t taxing’.
OH YES IT IS.
I guess it is supposed to be – what would tax accountants do otherwise? By allowing a hugely complex system to evolve over a couple of hundred years, the majority of people pay their taxes not through some moral compunction but because it’s too difficult not to.
So, unsurprisingly, when a country like America has a reciprocal tax agreement with a country like, oh I don’t know, let’s say Britain, you know that it isn’t going to be easy to take advantage of the fact.
And so I entered the world of the IRS. Now, I have seen my fair share of movies and American-import programmes to know that the IRS are apparently an organisation that superheroes like the Hulk and Superman should be fighting but don’t. Apparently when there was a fire in the records room at IRS HQ, nearly three firemen fought the blaze for almost two minutes.
When, as a British writer, you sign up to Kindle Direct Publishing, your royalties are paid from Amazon.com so are taxed at a flat 30% unless you say otherwise. “Saying otherwise” involves filling in a form called W8-BEN (although his Mother calls him W8) and declaring that you are, basically, so confused about tax that you would rather continue being confused about it in your own country than battle a whole new set of letters in a different one. So far, so easy. Except for one small, 10 character spanner in the Inland Revenue works:
An Employer Identification Number.
The internet, which as we all know is the definitive source of all wisdom, is full of authors who struggled, battled and lost, er, well no, eventually won, their EIN. Some had to fill in several forms, some had to go to the American Embassy in London whilst others had to fight large nameless monsters in disused car parks using only their knowledge of reciprocal tax-agreements through the ages and a rolled-up copy of the Financial Times.***
I just ‘phoned the IRS in Pennsylvania. It seemed easier and altogether less monster-full.
“Hello!” I said, in my clearest and most British of accents, after the customary 2 minutes of spiel in which I learnt the name of the organisation I had called (in case I had called the number randomly for something to do, I suppose), the name of the person I was listening to, the fact that the call may or may not be recorded for the amusement of the staff at their next coffee break and the general query about whether the person I had called could, in fact, help me. By this time, I was concerned that I had just blown the first year’s royalties on the ‘phone call, as I was unaware just how much my telephone provider charged for such an outrageous international use of their service.
As quickly and as Britishly**** as I could, I explained that I was a writer here in the UK and had signed up to KDP with Amazon. With a slight tremour in my voice, I asked the $64,000 question: “Can I have an EIN? Please?”
I added “You must have had quite a few of these requests”, hoping that that would further clarify the situation.
The man at the IRS said “We’ve had hundreds. It’s very easy…”
Here we go, I thought. He is going to ask me a million questions, then want me to fill in a ZB12-BRITTNEY form (younger sister to W8) then travel to the American Embassy in Antananarivo*****, Madagascar (I kid you not. There really is an American Embassy there) and fight an ancient Demi-god in the car park.
I was both relieved and slightly disappointed when he said “I’ll just ask you for your name and address and one or two other things and that will be fine.” Five minutes later, after regretting living in a place where the spelling of place names involves seeing how long you can go before encountering a vowel (and a proper one at that, not these half-vowels that masquerade as the real things), Mr IRS said those wonderful words “Your EIN is…”
And the ‘phone went dead.
No, no it didn’t. I just put that bit in to emphasise the point that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet.
So, I could now fill out W8, safe in the knowledge that I had everything I needed. I read the instructions on how to fill the form in.
Am I a flow-through entity? Is that like a sewage company? A hybrid entity (half man, half Toyota Prius)? A reverse hybrid entity( half Toyota Prius, half man)? A fiscally transparent entity (money made of see-through plastic)?
Suddenly, the rolled-up newspaper and the car park in Madagascar sounded like a good idea after all.
* For all my British readers, this is the tagline for a beer advert with a cute dog. What can I say? I have cute dogs; I like beer.
** If you’re German, you may well think that this is one number, number one. If only…
*** Well, OK, one then. And it was the one I have just made up. I am a Fiction writer, after all!
**** I think this word ought to exist. According to the spell checker, I meant Brutishly, or Brittney. It may well be right.
***** This should have something to do with NaNoWriMo but doesn’t.