By Adam Jusko, georgica.net, [email protected]

My wife and I have different last names, both of us choosing to keep our own last names when we married. (Although we toyed with taking on a new, outlandish last name for both of us to share, like PowerMaster.) Other than the occasional rude question about why we would have such a strange arrangement (some people are stuck in the 1950s apparently), it rarely raises an eyebrow.

Except on the financial end. After all these years of spouses having different last names and parents having different last names than their kids (or stepkids), you’d think this wouldn’t be such an issue. But, more than once, we have had to straighten out a financial problem that occurred because of different last names and lazy administrators/professionals.

For example:

A couple years back, my wife managed some work done at our house, meaning the contractor only knew her name, not mine. I handle most of the payments in our house, though, and my name is first on our checks (yes, we still use paper checks, I realize we are dinosaurs). But my wife’s name is still on the check. However, when I paid the bill, despite having a copy of the invoice in the envelope and a check with my wife’s name on it, the contractor was somehow so thrown off by our different names that they failed to credit us for the payment.

Instead, they started hounding us, emailing and phoning, asking where our payment was. At first, we were just confused. “We paid you,” we said. And then, when we got the canceled check in the mail with our bank statement, we were angry. “Not only did we pay you,” we said. “But you cashed the check!”

They didn’t believe us. So we had to actually produce the cancelled check to get them off our backs. When we did, they said, “Oh, we must’ve been confused because of the different last names.” Oh. I guess they just get random $1500 checks in the mail all the time and cash them without wondering who they came from.

Oy.

But… OK. That’s just a local contractor, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised when their billing system wasn’t ship-shape.

But then the IRS did it to us!

Last year we got the dreaded IRS letter. It informed us that we had not paid taxes on dividends of something like $16,000 or whatever, and that we had to pony up $4,000 unless we could prove they were wrong.

Of course they were wrong, but with the IRS it’s not innocent until proven guilty, as you may well know.

I racked my brain, trying to think how it could be that they thought we were such scoundrels. The IRS letter we got showed which accounts they were referencing. I recognized the accounts and felt certain we’d paid correctly.

But it was up to us to prove it. So I had to take a chunk of my Saturday to retrieve old tax forms and figure it out. The problem was our different last names. We had paid everything we were supposed to, but our accountant had filed our taxes separately, putting some of our investment income on one tax return and some on the other return. In the crazy world of taxes, this saved us money.

However, because we have different last names, the IRS did not connect us together (even though our names were on each other’s returns). They just assumed that all the investment income should be on my return, and, since they had documents that showed income I hadn’t paid taxes on, they wanted their money. They never bothered looking at the second name on either the tax form or the documents from the investment company.

Thus, I had to pay my accountant to send them a letter explaining that they screwed up, not us, and that we owed nothing. To the IRS’ (somewhat) credit, they did acknowledge this as correct and let us move on with our lives.

Sometimes my wife asks me if I wish she’d taken my name. I say, “No, with different last names it’s like you’re just my girlfriend. Adds a little spice to things.” But when these financial pratfalls happen, we do see the upsides of coalescing under one brand.