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An Adventure in German Bureaucracy

By Tuesday, September 16, 2014 ,

I originally wrote this post about a year ago, but didn't post it because I knew I should give myself some time to cool off and edit it.


In the US, Germany has a reputation for being very rule oriented and bureaucratic, but also very efficient. My experience with officials has certainly confirmed a dependence on paperwork, not to mention a passionate love affair with stamps, however most of my dealings have resembled a trip to the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles, If you're not American, and let me put it this way - I once saw a man there offering $100 to anyone who'd let him take their place in line. That's about €74 and no one took him up on his offer because that's not enough money to extend your own time there).

Earlier I wrote about needing to get a tax card, and instead was given a note saying I might be dead, which was quite annoying at the time, but I consoled myself thinking it would make a good story to tell at parties.

Well, that wasn't the end of our problems, so I think I'll start from the beginning.

To work, pay taxes and eventually collect a pension, you need a Tax Identification Number, in addition to a Social Security Number. To get this, I had to go to the place we originally registered, the Bezirksamt. It would only take 5 minutes, my work administration told me and since we had a few more things to take care of that day my husband joined me.

So we arrive at the Bezirksamt and ask the man at the information desk where I needed to go. He tells me they no longer do Lohnsteuerkarte (tax ID cards) there and I will need to go to the Finanzamt to get it taken care of. OK, not too bad, but we have to take two trains a few stops. At the Finanzamt I fill out some paperwork for my husband and me to the best of my abilities, but leave tax class blank because although I'm pretty sure we should be class three (for married people with differing incomes) I wanted to ask someone about it, in case there is a special class for foreigners or people not planning on retiring in Germany.

The Finanzamt lady instead told us (remember my husband is there with me) that she couldn't complete the process because my ID number I got when I first registered was inactive, which meant I was either dead or ... I'm not sure. I have the nasty impression that she was implying I stole the identity of a deceased person though.

She gave me a print out of my information and showed me where is said that my number was unknown and told us to go back to the Bezirksamt.

So we go back to the Bezirksamt, ask the same man at the information desk where we should go and I show him my letter saying I might be dead. He has a good laugh at that, says I should sue for wrongful death, and then explains tax cards are unnecessary because the number is stored on file - the physical card is superfluous. This from the man who sent us to the Finanzamt in the first place. 

He sends us upstairs, where we get my tax number sorted out and everything is fixed.

Until I take a closer look at the paper Frou Finanzamt printed out saying I had no number. She had filled in my tax class as '1', for people who are single (or married and filing separately), despite me filling out the paper work as married, included all my husband's information and with him sitting there in front of her next to me. We'd save a lot of money if we could file jointly.

So the next day I sent her an email asking why she'd put us in the wrong class, and she wrote back (through snail mail) that she put us in class one because my husband doesn't live in Germany. If you remember, my husband was sitting there in front of her when made that decision, and we had filled out our paperwork stating that we lived together here in Germany. She never asked him where he was living, she just decided that what I had written down was wrong, and she knew better.

So a few days after that, after talking to some of the people in my department about what to do next, I email her back with a copy of my husband's aufenthaltskarte, the ID card for family members of EU citizens. As I'm writing this, it's been nearly a month since I sent it to her and we've heard nothing.

A week later I received an email from the head of the Personnel Department at work, saying they can't start paying me until they get the form Frau Finanzamt did a number on, with an unknown tax ID number and the wrong tax class, and that I needed to take care of this immediately. I had to turn in the copy I had, knowing it was incorrect and thus would have more of my salary taken out as taxes.

Eventually, we gave up on ever hearing from Frau Finanzamt and went back in person, this time to a different branch closer to where we live. Everything goes well until the woman working with us tells us there was a problem because when she looks us up in the system it says we aren't married. But, she tells us, she'll file the paperwork anyway and if we go back to the Bezirksamt and register as being married, everything will be set by the time the paperwork goes through. 

So we go back a third time to the Bezirksamt, explain that we've been married for a year and half but need to register it again. Turns out, we were always married in the Bezirksamt's records. The woman who helped us here tells us she doesn't understand why there was a problem, but she'll send an 'electronic letter'  (an email? some kind of internal notification?) with it to the Finanzamt, and we'll get a confirmation letter that the tax class will change, which we're still waiting for).

So all in all, this five minute errand took an entire month, two visits to the Finanzamt and three to the Bezirksamt, and will result in me losing about 300 Euro (414 USD) due to Frau Finanzamt's tax class mistake (hopefully I will get it back when we file our taxes). All to find out there wasn't actually a problem to fix, just a miss-communication between two departments that work closely with one another. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you German Efficiency.

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  1. Wow I'm getting angry just reading about the hassle you went through. I can't imagine how bad it was for you to experience.