Bloomberg Tax
Oct. 13, 2022, 8:45 AM

The Case of the Disappearing Ink—A US Tax Court Mystery

Kelly Phillips Erb
Kelly Phillips Erb

It is harder than you would think to order a pen with ink that can withstand radiation.

And yet, that’s exactly what I found myself trying to do this weekend after reading about a taxpayer whose payment was returned in the form of what looked like a blank check.

Tax Court Petition Glitch

Larry James Klingenberg and Lou Ann Bassan of San Francisco jointly filed an S case petition in US Tax Court. An S case typically involves a dispute with the IRS where the amount of the deficiency and any additions to tax or penalties, but not interest, for each year is $50,000 or less. For a collections matter, the total unpaid tax, including interest and penalties, for all years cannot exceed $50,000. The filing fee is $60 and can be paid by check, money order, credit card, or debit card.

According to the Tax Court, the petition was postmarked on July 11, 2022, and received on July 18, 2022. A notice of receipt of petition was recorded on Aug. 1, 2022.

There’s another entry in the docket: An Order for Filing Fee. That order notes, “The Court’s $60.00 filing fee for this case has not been paid.”

The court also mailed out a notice, returning Bassan’s original check. But instead of a $60 check made out to the US Tax Court, the check appeared blank. Was it a case of forgetfulness? No. It was science.

Irradiated Mail

The notice indicated that the check had been adversely affected due to the irradiation of government mail. The ink had simply disappeared. Apparently, if you turned it at just the right angle, you could make out where the words used to be, but post-irradiation, they were gone.

The court advised that the taxpayer should send a replacement check—that’s where the order came in. The order gave the taxpayer an additional two months to pay the filing fee.

As for that irradiation? If you’re picturing some kind of top secret government experiment gone awry, you’d be mistaken. It’s much less dramatic.

As I’ve written before, it can take eight to 15 business days for the US Postal Service to deliver a piece of mail to a government agency in Washington, D.C., from any location in the US. That’s because once the mail has been sorted, it heads to a New Jersey location for irradiation, which takes an additional five to 10 days. It then is returned to Washington, D.C., to be delivered.

This process is not new—it’s been happening for more than 20 years. After Sept. 11, in October 2001, anthrax was found in mail sent to news agencies and the offices of two US senators. Anthrax, which presents as a white powder, is a species of bacteria that forms spores that can make people sick when inhaled. As a protective measure, and with help from the FBI and public health experts, the USPS began to irradiate certain pieces of mail.

Affected mail includes first-class business and letter-size envelopes and flats, express and priority mail, and other packages addressed to specific government offices in ZIP codes 20200 through 20599. All mail directed to the White House, Congress, and the Library of Congress is irradiated.

There are special facilities for the purpose of irradiating mail. They have thick concrete or lead-lined walls to shield employees and visitors from radiation. During the irradiation process, the mail is exposed to extreme heat as it passes through a high-energy beam of ionizing radiation. The beam destroys viruses and bacteria like anthrax.

The process can change the way that paper looks and feels. It can also change color—to yellow or brown—and turn brittle or crumbly. It can also smell like it’s been baked in an oven. Glue and tape can loosen, and printing may be distorted. And no, because I know you’re wondering: Irradiating mail does not make the mail radioactive. You’ll have to find other ways to make your dreams of turning into Spiderman come true—a returned petition from the Tax Court won’t do it.

Disappearing Ink

Disappearing ink is conspicuously missing from that list of potential irradiation side effects. According to the Tax Court’s Public Affairs Counsel, it’s not a very common problem. When the court receives irradiated mail, it can generally tell that the mail has “gone through a process.” But reports of disappearing ink are so rare that the court doesn’t even keep track of cases.

But what if, I wondered, you wanted to buy a pen specifically for signing a check to send to Tax Court? How hard can it be to find one? More complicated, as it turns out, than filing a petition in the first place.

Using technology specially developed by NASA, this is the pen that astronauts took to the Moon. Sleek and stylish, it can write under water, upside down and on greasy surfaces. Made from chromed steel, it is 9 cm long.
Photographer: SSPL/Getty Images

My first instinct was to Google variations on “pens that can withstand radiation.” That didn’t get me very far, but it did take me down some interesting rabbit holes. As it turns out, you can buy pens that can write under all manner of circumstances—upside-down, underwater, and in zero gravity. Some pens claim to be “designed to last forever,” while others tout that they are virtually “indestructible.” You can even buy tactical pens that serve multiple purposes, including breaking windshields and killing bears. But signing a check that could absolutely be delivered to the Tax Court via US mail? I couldn’t find one with that guarantee.

I decided to consult with a scientist. Alexandra Ormond, Ph.D., is the department head of chemistry, physics, and geoscience at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. I asked her why ink would disappear from a check. That is, of course, a loaded question without more information. Ormond advised that it would be good to know what kind of pen was used to write the check.

Interestingly, she noted that if “an erasable pen like the PILOT FriXion was used, then during the irradiation process, which may include radiation in the form of heat or ionizing radiation (such as X-rays), the pen ink may experience rearrangement or degradation of the ink’s component that is responsible for color.” The result can be that the color is lost through this process. However, with these types of pens, the color can return through a thermochromic process once the ink is cooled. My guess is that the Tax Court didn’t think to put it into a freezer.

I wondered whether alternative processes might be available to kill the kinds of bacteria targeted by the government while allowing you to sign freely using a pen of your choice. Ormond noted that there could likely be other processes, but you would probably need to know what it is you’re trying to destroy. She reminded me that there are many types of radiation—objects can be irradiated through various processes, including heat, X-rays, and UV light from the sun or man-made sources. Radiation doesn’t always equate to nuclear reactivity. We commonly irradiate certain microorganisms in food, for example.

You can even buy pens that have already been irradiated to make them sterile—increasingly desirable for businesses due to Covid-19. However, it’s important to note that pens that have been irradiated in one process do not necessarily have ink guaranteed to withstand other irradiation techniques.


All of this made me wonder: What’s a taxpayer to do? As I called around, the clear answer was not to panic. This isn’t a common problem, and most non-erasable pen ink likely can withstand irradiation done by the postal service. And if you’re super worried, pay by money order, credit card, or debit card.

As for my research, it wasn’t all for naught. Determined not to come up empty-handed, I bought a Space Pen—the brand claims to have been on every NASA manned space flight since 1968. I can’t guarantee that it can survive the postal service, but if you need to write something while floating in a gravity-free zone or in temperatures of up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, I can help.

This is a regular column from Kelly Phillips Erb, the Taxgirl. Erb offers commentary on the latest in tax news, tax law, and tax policy. Look for Erb’s column every week from Bloomberg Tax and follow her on Twitter at @taxgirl.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kelly Phillips Erb in Washington at