July 29, 2014

The United States federal income tax system is operated under a system of voluntary compliance. This innocuous sounding term actually packs quite a potent punch. In actuality, there is little that is voluntary about the federal tax system, at least where paying taxes is concerned. Many celebrities and ordinary citizens alike have learned this lesson the hard way, almost always at great financial cost.

Voluntary Compliance and Audits

The “voluntary” nature of taxation relates to the method of submitting and paying income tax obligations. The Treasury department places the burden of figuring, reporting and paying income taxes in the hands of its citizens, rather than automatically collecting the revenue. In contrast, sales taxes and other use taxes are involuntary. Whenever you buy an item or service that carries sales tax, you not only pay the price of the merchandise or service, but the tax as well.

Although the IRS collects taxes under a voluntary compliance system, the assumption is that most of the population will fail to pay its full tax burden, either by mistake or by deliberate attempts at tax evasion. To remedy the resulting shortfall, the IRS has instituted a system of tax audits. A majority of audits are triggered by suspicious items included or omitted from tax returns. Other tax audits are generated because taxpayers who should file tax returns fail to do so or file so-called frivolous returns. An unfortunate minority of taxpayers are flagged for audits by random selection – just plain bad luck.

Tax Evasion and Frivolous Tax Returns

Throughout history, famous and infamous figures have been caught in the net of failure to comply with the “voluntary” system. Notorious gangster Al Capone died in prison as a result of a conviction of income tax evasion. More recently, celebrities like Martha Stewart, Wesley Snipes and Marc Anthony have been snared by convictions for federal income tax evasion.

One persistent but thoroughly discredited strain of tax protest arguments claim that federal income taxes are unconstitutional, or that taxpayers can eliminate their federal income obligations by filing “zero” tax returns. Snipes was one of the more famous figures taken in by this line of reasoning, and as a result was convicted of misdemeanor tax evasion in 2008 and sentenced to 3 years in prison. As of 2014, the movie star was back on the silver screen, headlining in the action feature Expendables 3. Presumably, Snipes will pay a rightful proportion of his earnings from the film, marketed as a summer blockbuster, to the IRS.

The IRS exercises little patience with taxpayers filing what it concludes to be frivolous returns. It imposes an array of civil penalties, listed below:

  • Accuracy-related penalty under section 6662 (20 percent of the underpayment attributable to negligence or disregard of rules or regulations)
  • Civil fraud penalty under section 6663 (seventy-five percent of the underpayment attributable to fraud)
  • Erroneous claim for refund penalty under section 6676 (twenty percent of the excessive amount)
  • Fraudulent failure to timely file income tax return (triple the amount of the standard failure to file addition to tax under section 6651(a)(1))
  • Frivolous submissions other than tax returns under the Tax Relief Health Care Law of 2006 ($5,000 penalty)

Criminal penalties for tax evasion based on frivolous tax returns can also be severe. Both fines and jail time may be imposed upon conviction. Specific penalties are listed below.

  • Felony for attempting to evade or defeat tax under Section 7201 provides as a penalty a fine of up to $100,000 ($500,000 in the case of a corporation) and imprisonment for up to 5 years with optional additional fine up to $250,000
  • Felony for willfully making and signing under penalties of perjury any return, statement, or other document that the person does not believe to be true and correct as to every material matter under section 7206 is a fine of up to $100,000 ($500,000 in the case of a corporation) and imprisonment for up to 3 years with optional additional fine up to $250,000
  • Felony for promoting frivolous arguments and assisting taxpayers in claiming tax benefits based on frivolous arguments under section 7206(2) may be fined up to $100,000 ($500,000 in the case of a corporation) and imprisonment for up to 3 years with optional additional fine up to $250,000

Corporate Taxes and Tax Dodges

Individual taxpayers are far from alone in their attempts to minimize their tax burdens. Complex accounting maneuvers with names like the Double Irish or Dutch Sandwich allow major corporations like Apple and Google to evade the 35 percent US corporate tax. But unlike tax evasion or frivolous tax returns, corporate tax dodges are largely perfectly legal – for now. Governments around the world have begun to put measures in place designed to curb offshore tax havens and other corporate tax evasion strategies.

Fair Tax System

The voluntary compliance system is far from the only viable system of income taxation. The so-called fair tax system is based on imposing use taxes – the more goods and services a person uses, the more taxes he or she pays. But fair use systems often impose a heavier burden on low-income taxpayers because they pay a higher proportion of their income use taxes. For this reason fair use taxes are often labeled as regressive — and aggressively unfair.

Simple Tax System

Supporters of a so-called simple tax system include tax expert Austan Goolsbee and policy wonk Ezra Klein. Under a simple tax system the IRS would calculate taxes, credits and deductions and provide taxpayers with a copy of the completed return. Taxpayers who agree with the IRS’s calculations could simply accept the return, while taxpayers who disagree could file their own returns.

The simple tax system has obvious advantages. The IRS has a good idea of what many taxpayers earn and owe anyway, thanks to Form W-2 and various versions of Form 1099. The simple tax system would also ensure nearly 100 percent compliance, since the IRS would be supplying tax returns rather than individual citizens.

As one might expect, the tax preparation industry (including TurboTax) largely disfavors the simple tax return system. Approximately 60 percent of all Americans contract with outside tax preparers to file their federal and state income tax returns. Implementing something like the simple tax system would cut deeply into that percentage.

While the simple tax return system is indeed simple, there are potential pitfalls. First, many taxpayers may accept the IRS’s version of their returns whether it is accurate or not from inertia, laziness or fear of reprisal. Second, even if the IRS and its agents were totally diligent in calculating the maximum credits and deductions, human error must still be taken into account.

Death and Taxes

Given the present financial and political climate, it is unlikely that the voluntary compliance tax system will change in the foreseeable future. It’s also a safe bet that attempts to evade taxes will continue, including extreme cases such as Facebook co-founder Eduardo Savarin, who renounced his American citizenship in 2012 shortly before the social media giant launched its IPO. In the face of such tax evasion attempts, the IRS will also undoubtedly continue its enforcement strategies, including the dreaded audit.