Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Matroshkas and the Tax Man

I shook my head in disbelief at the matroshkas I was cramming into my suitcase. Wooden nesting dolls or matroshkas (ma-TROSH-kas), are the most popular souvenir of Russia and over the years, I’ve hauled back quite a few. Most matroshkas are painted with predictably feminine designs such as a peasant-style dress, a headscarf, and a bouquet of flowers. More elaborate matroshkas might feature characters from Russian folk tales and nowadays you can find them of the British Royal Family or the University of Texas football team. Imagine.

Well, the matroshkas I was packing featured Russian presidents and Soviet leaders. The largest doll was of President Vladimir Putin and the smallest, Vladimir Lenin. In between were Boris Yeltsin – whose funeral you may have caught on the news recently – Michael Gorbochev, Leonid Breshnev, Nikita Khruschev and Joseph Stalin. What a collection of characters.

I must admit that matroshkas of the Russian presidents aren’t be something I would seek out for myself and so I chuckled to myself, These have to be the most gimmicky matroshkas ever.

On the other hand, what souvenir won’t a missionary buy at a hint from her tax accountant?

A round of applause please for E.B.Dotson, III, CPA. This man is a godsend to many of us missionaries: He does our taxes. For several years now, E.B. has donated his tax expertise as his own personal ministry, a torch he accepted from J. C. McCurdy, CPA, who, before he retired, handled taxes for as many as 150 missionary families. Now that’s a labor of love.

Back when I was preparing for the mission field, I had heard about Mr. McCurdy’s tax service but resisted because for one thing, I was uncomfortable asking for help. Besides that, another CPA was doing my taxes just fine. But little did I understand then about the value of having a tax pro who is into tax law for U.S. citizens living overseas.

Tax law for expatriates including foreign missionaries is quite complex. One common misunderstanding is that those who live outside the U.S. are exempt from filing a return. Another misunderstanding concerns the number of days the expat wage earner can be in the U.S. in a calendar year. That’s where it makes quite a difference to have a CPA who is into the nitty-gritty details.

Before I availed myself of Mr.McCurdy’s tax expertise, my visits to the States were nothing short of frenetic. I was careful to stay no longer than 35 days, often leaving on day 34 just to be safe. That meant five weeks of zipping across country from Washington to North Carolina to Ohio to Texas to work in family visits, medical checkups and reporting to sponsoring congregations. And after all of the rushing around, I would return to Russia worn out. More like semi-comatose.

Then I caught on to missionary friends elsewhere whose visits home sounded more reasonable. I asked what they knew about expat taxes that I didn’t know. Aha. They knew Mr. McCurdy. But it wasn’t until July of 2003 that I was compelled to contact him, the summer I needed to be in Ohio eight weeks to help my dad.

I called Mr. McCurdy at his west Texas home and in his soft drawl, he said,
Well, I’ve retired now that I’m in my eighties and so I’ve passed my work on to E.B. Dotson. But tell you what -- Let me get your taxes going real good and then I’ll pass them on to E.B. and let him take it from there.

I readily agreed.

Nowadays, my trips to the US are downright pleasant. I usually stay six to eight weeks but fall of 2005, I took a 12-week furlough which included my 30th college reunion. It happens that both Mr. McCurdy and E.B. Dotson live in that college town and I wanted to thank them in person. I knew I would be crossing paths with Mr. McCurdy at church but to meet E.B., I would need to stop by his office.

In the course of our conversation, E.B. let slip an interest in matroshkas of the Russian presidents. And that took the guesswork out of finding him the perfect souvenir.

A curtsey to the Russian leaders who have nudged Russia toward democracy. And a salute to E.B. and those like him, who offer their skills pro bono, working quietly and carefully all to the glory of God. Their eternal reward will be so much greater than metroshkas.

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