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Zombies and the Tax Code


In a law review article, ASU professor Adam Chodorow warns that the state and the nation are ill prepared for a zombie apocalypse.

It's not the public health issues that concern Chodorow.

It's that the nation's tax laws are woefully inadequate to deal with the undead.

And part of the problem is that there's no consensus of when someone is truly dead. Even Arizona law is not very specific, saying only that a determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.

But Chodorow questioned what does that mean. Some suggest it is when the heart stops beating. Others consider brain activity. But what of zombies? He pointed out 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. Chodorow says it makes no sense to classify those in a vegetative coma as alive but a victim of a zombie virus as dead, though he writes that those in the former category -- quote -- would likely not develop an overpowering hunger for brains.

"It may be silly to think about zombies," Chodorow said. "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 to fix our rules to address some of this."

Chodorow admits he uses humor to look at the issue. But he warns the issues already are out there.

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. Chodorow says that raises a whole host of questions. If they're reanimated, are they still legally considered dead? And do they get to use their old Social Security number? Chodorow says this kind of question is not unusual.

"This happens in the law all the time where the law has unstated assumptions and we've built the law with these assumptions," Chodorow said. "And we've built the law with these assumptions in mind. And suddenly something changes. Science progresses. And the assumption's no longer true and you realize, oh my gosh, we didn't even realize we had that assumption. But now that that's no longer true, we need to fix the law."

Nor does he believe it makes sense to wait.

"Probably within my lifetime we are going to have people who are clinically dead coming back," Chodorow said. "Now it may not be Walt Disney and severed heads in jars. But we're going to be pushing the boundaries."

In fact, Chodorow says there are already problems with the lack of a good definition of what it means to be dead, citing the system of organ donation.

"You have to be clinically dead before they can take your organs. But you can't be dead, because the organs aren't useful. And so there's 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."

That's where his expertise at tax law comes in -- and Chodorow again uses zombies as is example. He said when someone dies, the estate is taxed based on the fair market value of the property owned on the date of death. He said if zombies are considered dead, that's not a problem, writing that becoming a zombie will be no different than dying from pneumonia -- aside from the part where you eat your friends and loved ones. But if a zombie is not dead, he wonders whether someone might seek to become a zombie to delay the estate tax.

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