ASU prof. asks: How do estate, income tax laws affect zombies? (No joke) - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

ASU prof. asks: How do estate, income tax laws affect zombies? (No joke)

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  • 'Zombies'

    Russ Kazmierczak Jr./Amazing Arizona Comics

Posted: Monday, July 16, 2012 6:12 am | Updated: 4:33 pm, Thu Jul 19, 2012.

The way Adam Chodorow sees it, there's a big gap in federal estate and income tax laws: They don't deal with zombies.

It's not that the law professor and tax expert at Arizona State University expects hordes of the undead to soon be roaming the state, though he does suggest in an article awaiting publication in the Iowa Law Review, "significant questions exist'' as to whether most attorney at large law firms already qualify.

But Chodorow said there is a real issue underlying his often tongue-firmly-in-cheek scholarly piece: There are no good definitions of life and death -- and potentially life again.

Unrealistic? Consider former baseball great Ted Williams. While he "died'' in 2002, his frozen head has been hanging around at an Arizona cryonics facility with the idea of reanimating him -- presumably to an android or donor body -- when technology makes that an option.

There also have been unconfirmed reports that Walt Disney is similarly on ice.

"Should those who have died and come back intact still be considered dead?'' Chodorow muses in his 25-page article. "Or should their deaths be treated as a legal nullity?''

And do they get to use their old Social Security number?

The problem, he said, is based on the "flawed assumption'' in the tax code that death is permanent. He told Capitol Media Services he expects sufficient scientific advances "within my lifetime'' to challenge that.

Chodorow, however, does not limit his treatise to those awaiting reanimation. He figures that if Congress is going to fix the tax code, it should address all such possibilities.

And that, he said, has to include zombies.

But here, too, the issue turns on that tricky problem: When is someone truly dead?

Arizona has no statutory definition. Probate law simply says that "a determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.''

Chodorow says federal law pretty much lets each state reach its own definition. He said that sometimes means the heart has stopped beating; elsewhere the test revolves around brain activity.

But both of those present problems, he said, considering that the lore suggests that some zombies were never dead in the first place and reanimated, but simply transformed that way due to some type of plague or infection.

"It seems a stretch to conclude that those who transform seamlessly into zombies should be considered dead,'' the professor writes.

"They never lose heart or brain function, though they now function quite differently from before,'' he continues. "While it might be tempting to declare them dead, significant line-drawing problems would arise as one tried to distinguish zombies and those who have suffered some mental or physical breakdown.''

Consider, he says, someone who is in a vegetative state, whose brain stem alone survives, is considered alive.

"It would be inconsistent to classify those people as alive, while at the same time classifying those infected by a zombie virus as dead,'' Chodorow explains, though suggesting that those in the former category "would likely not develop an overpowering hunger for brains.''

He said the law review article, while strange on its face, is what happens in law school all the time.

"We create hypotheticals,'' he said, and use those to review the weaknesses in the law.

"It may be silly to think of zombies, but as medical science advances and people start coming back, or as the line of death gets blurrier and blurrier because of medical advances, we need rules to address some of this,'' he said.

Chodorow said there already are questions arising -- even without considering cryogenics -- about when life ends, which is why there needs to be a better definition.

"It really comes into play in things like organ donation,'' he explained.

"You have to be clinically dead before they can take your organs,'' Chodorow continued. "But you can't be dead because the organs aren't useful.''

He said that creates "this sort of weird limbo where you're legally dead but biologically alive.''

"But if legal death is defined by biological death, then the system doesn't work,'' Chodorow said.

That's where his expertise at tax law comes in.

Most immediate, he said, is the estate tax, dubbed by some as the federal "death tax.''

Right now, when someone dies, the estate is taxed based on the fair market value of the property owed on the date of death. But the cost "basis'' of what is left behind for heirs is reset to the current market value on the date of death.

If zombies are considered dead, then there's no problem.

"Becoming a zombie will be no different than dying from pneumonia, aside from the part where you eat your friends and loved ones,'' Chodorow writes.

But if a zombie is not considered dead, then there would be neither an estate tax nor tax basis reset. Then the tax laws would kick in only when the person's zombie was finally dispatched.

"Were this the rule, people might have incentives to become zombies to delay the application of the estate tax,'' he says.

And that doesn't even touch the question of whether one remains married after becoming a zombie, and the associated issues of whether obligations for alimony and child support cease -- and whether a spouse can remarry without violating polygamy laws.

Chodorow said the questions about zombies are simply extensions of current or soon-to-be-faced questions of life and death.

"All joking aside, we need to figure out what it means to be alive,'' he said.

Zombies aren't the only focus of the article. Chodorow also explores other forms of tax law on the "undead,'' including vampires who he presumes that, because they retain their faculties, will still be able to earn income which should be taxable.

"Indeed, they are likely to work the night shift, which usually pays more than day jobs, so their income could be significant,'' he writes.

The article on zombies isn't Chodorow's first foray into looking at the logical or illogical extension of tax laws into unusual situations.

"It turns out that what I find interesting is sort of odd,'' he confessed.

For example, he wrote about Jewish tithing practices -- the Old Testament mandate to give up 10 percent of what you grow or what you earn -- as a form of taxation.

"So when you give 10 percent, 10 percent of what?'' Chodorow said. He said that requires a definition of "income.''

"When grandma gives you a car, do you have to tithe on the car?'' he asked.

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