We Gave Away a Fortune: Stories of People Who have Devoted Themselves and Their Wealth to Peace, Justice, and the Environment, a book by Christopher Mogil, Anne Slepian, and Peter Woodrow, includes several stories of people who have given away large sums of money to charity, sometimes while living on relatively little themselves.
Some of these generous givers were motivated in part by war tax resistance concerns.
When Edorah Frazer turned 25 she was due to receive some half a million dollars from her deceased father’s estate. She didn’t feel like she had any just claim on the money and in general felt guilty about her family’s gilded financial status relative to those around her, and she eventually decided she would give the money away. She didn’t get much support for her decision, certainly not from her family, but not even (at first) from the socially-responsible investment community she had connected with.
In , I turned 25 and received all my inherited money. Although I had been getting quarterly interest checks since my dad died, this was the first time I had access to the principal. I asked for it all to be sent to me… in its current form of stock certificates. I wanted to give the stock away directly, because I knew that if I sold it I would have to pay capital gains tax. I’ve been a war tax resister, so I wanted to avoid taxes, if possible. Not long after, $400,000 in stock certificates arrived in the mail.
I made charts about each stock. I was curious to see what heinous products I was helping to produce so I wrote down what each company produced, and I found out many interesting things — for instance, that the Morton Salt Company not only makes table salt, but the booster rockets for nuclear missiles. What a weird association! According to my calculations, my stocks were worth about $423,000. I also had $150,000 in cash and government bonds, but since there were no tax liabilities with that money I decided to deal with it later.
I sat at the kitchen table and took out two thick folders I had collected, one full of grant proposals from different organizations and another full of tax information. Then I looked at the stock certificates, all very flowery looking with different colors and embossed stamps. They looked like money but bigger and each stated the number of shares I owned in that company. I spread them all out on the kitchen table and started making phone calls. I called Haymarket [a socially-responsible investing group], I called an accountant and a variety of tax people to find out what I should do. It was mid-, one of the last days in the year to sell stocks or give money away for the tax year. I thought, “I’m going to give it away anyway, so why have a huge tax liability? I might as well just get rid of this stuff now.”
She opted to do so by putting all of her stocks in a donor-advised fund, which allowed her to take any tax deductions for the donation immediately, while giving her more time to decide how and when to distribute her donations to charity.
She then took stock of her income and expenses to see how much of the remaining inheritance she would need:
For six months after my giving, I recorded every dollar I spent and found out that I was living on about $14,000 a year. that was the first time I knew how much it would take to support myself. I always worked, but earned less than half my expenditures, counting on unearned income to make up the difference.
One night as I was falling asleep, I found myself calculating how much money I used each year from my inheritance and how many years I would be able to live at my current lifestyle if I didn’t give away any more. “Using $8,000 unearned income a year, in 15 years it will be gone!” And with a sense of panic, I woke up. Then I realized, “Oh, my God, that’s totally irrational. I’m not going to be living like this for 15 years — I’m going to be earning my living starting next year as a teacher.”
Betsy Duren inherited about $300,000 from a grandparent, and some time after began to give it away. On the way to telling that story, she mentioned her war tax resistance:
I think that one of the most basic problems in our society is how much money is thrown into the military — more than half our income taxes go to support it. That’s why I decided I would not voluntarily give the IRS anything, and in fact, I’d make it difficult for them to take it. At tax time, instead of sending a check to the IRS I sent a check for the same amount to the American Friends Service Committee, an organization that I believed would use it in the public interest. Eventually, the IRS started garnishing my wages, but then I found out from a war tax counselor that $75 per week is tax-exempt, so I asked my employer to cut back my pay to that amount. This stopped the IRS from collecting any money from me. Later I started free-lance computer work, and since I had no employer to take taxes out of my pay, it was easier to keep the money from the IRS.
My hope was that people who risked standing up to the IRS would help wake others up to how morally wrong it is for our tax dollars to build the military. I didn’t want to give money to build weapons that can kill millions of people, and I can’t pretend that my tax money is doing otherwise. The way I see it, people lack basic needs primarily because we are building military might to maintain U.S. economic domination over most of the world. The only way we’re going to have lasting peace is by redistributing wealth. Poverty, war, and suffering are caused by people who have more than their share of the pie trying to hold onto it.
Duren started by putting her inheritance into zero-interest, rotating, community loan funds while she researched how to eventually give the money away. As the loans matured, she gave the money away bit by bit, keeping $7,000 for her own use.
Robbie Gamble and Martha Miller are two other big-givers profiled. Gamble learned as a young man that he was an heir to part of the Procter & Gamble company fortune. In the 1980s, he became a Catholic Worker volunteer and began living a life of voluntary “poverty” while at the same time periodically receiving (and giving away) large distributions from the trust that he inherited.
He mentioned his foray into tax resistance:
I had been paying $100,000 a yer in income tax. In , after the U.S. invasion of Grenada, I decided I could no longer pay war taxes; U.S. foreign policy was just too crazy. So the next time the trust company filled out my tax return, I sent a cover letter explaining in moral and religious terms that I couldn’t pay it. I refused to pay taxes three years until an IRS agent came to the trust company office and said, “We’l take this, this, and this…”