Q&A: ASU law professor discusses tax implications of zombie apocalypse

Friday, October 28, 2016

It has long been said that the only things certain in life are death and taxes, but what if that were to change? What if there’s no more death? 

Arizona State University law professor Adam Chodorow explored the questions in a report, “Death and Taxes and Zombies,” which was published by the Iowa Law Review and recently highlighted this week by the Wall Street Journal. His 2012 essay provides a life-or-death warning that the U.S. tax code needs a massive overhaul to prepare for an apocalypse of the undead.  

Chodorow says Congress and the IRS need to get ready, since a zombie invasion would create an urgent need for revenue to protect the living. He says the federal government’s failure to plan could cripple its ability to respond. “Armies like to get paid,” Chodorow said.

Discussing his work with ASU Now, Chodorow, of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, said he filed the analysis to fill a glaring gap in academic literature by examining how estate and income tax laws apply to the undead — zombies, vampires and ghosts. 

Question: Any plans to update your analysis? 

Chodorow: I think I’ve plumbed the depths of the income and estate tax issues that a zombie apocalypse would present. However, there remain many other issues to consider. 

For instance, should zombies be considered persons for purposes of the decennial census? The answer could affect the distribution of government revenues, the allocation of congressional seats, and a variety of other important matters.

If we were to take an originalist approach, we would have to determine what James Madison thought about zombies.

Alternatively, if we believe in the living Constitution, we would have to ferret out what such a document has to say about the undead.

My fervent hope is to get to this important issue while there is still time. 

Q: What inspired you to write the initial report?

A: I was in Denver for a tax conference, having lunch, when I saw an Occupy Denver march coming up the street. I looked the other direction and saw a zombie walk heading down the street. 

The two groups collided, and you had people with “End the Fed” signs intermingling with people staggering around groaning, “Braiiiiins ...” It was one of those “Where is Jon Stewart when you need him” moments.

For some reason, the thought just popped into my head: “Should those who have died and come back as zombies be considered dead for estate tax purposes? If not, there are some interesting tax-planning opportunities for the well advised.”

The rest is history. 

Q: How did people respond?

A: Initially, there was dead silence.

I feared that the article would simply disappear, like a stone dropped into a deep pool.  But it soon rose from the dead and took off in ways I didn’t fully understand. 

The article was featured in The New York Times, Time magazine online, Forbes, and a number of blogs

I’m something of a Luddite: I’m not on Facebook, and I don’t tweet. The article was tweeted and retweeted and liked, and I learned a lot about social media very quickly. It even made it onto Reddit.

I was interviewed on the radio in San Francisco and for podcasts. I started hearing from people I hadn’t talked to in years. I feel very lucky. I got my 15 minutes of fame, and I didn’t have to do anything really embarrassing to get it.

Q: What exactly are the consequences of a zombie apocalypse?

A: Well, the first thing is that most people will be dead, or undead. There will be a premium on guns and shovels. If the government survives, there will be organized effort to fight back, which will require significant resources.

This is where the tax issues arise: If zombies are considered dead for estate tax purposes, the government can impose the estate tax and raise the money necessary to fight them.

If they are not considered dead, then well-advised taxpayers may decide to become zombies to avoid the estate tax. Of course, there are downsides to this strategy — like eating your wife and kids — but if the estate is large enough, it may be worth it.

Q: Your paper is loaded with footnotes, legal definitions, suppositions and references to movies like “Weekend at Bernie’s” — how much research did you actually do?

A: The truth is that I’m far more of a tax nerd than a zombie nerd. Most of the research I did for this paper was about zombies.

The best part was that my wife would wander into the living room and find me watching “Zombieland” or “Shaun of the Dead,” and I could honestly tell her that I was doing research. 

Q: The paper weighs the idea of applying income taxes to zombies. My guess is they aren’t predisposed to following the law, so how do you get them to play ball?

A: This is one of the great problems. Some zombies are demonically possessed, while others are simple brain-eating machines.

It is not at all clear whether they will be able to fill out their 1040s. And I, for one, would not want to be the guy assigned to execute a lien or levy against them. That’s why I suggest exempting zombies from the income tax. While they theoretically owe such taxes, concerns about administration may warrant a special rule exempting them.

Q: You also bring up the idea that a vampire could also be taxed like a zombie since they are both technically dead. Do you view them all as one tax group?

A: While vampires and zombies share an origin, I think that they have sufficiently diverged to be considered separate, at least for tax purposes. For instance, vampires can certainly understand how to fill out a 1040.

Moreover, most vampires are rich, owning castles, having servants, etc.

If they work, they have to work the night shift, where they will earn time-and-a-half. Congress would be wise to develop a separate set of tax rules for zombies and vampires.

Q: Your plan would still have to be approved by Congress, assuming they’re still alive. If they are, and they’re a majority Republican, how do you get them to vote for new taxes?

A: There is an old saying that nothing sharpens the mind like a pending execution. Assuming that taxes were the only thing standing between the zombie horde and our elected officials, I’m guessing that the Republican anti-tax mantra would crumble.

 

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