Trump’s "I Win" Tax Form

Presidential hopeful and real estate mogul, Donald Trump, is known for his informal and crude style.  If you ask him, he just says it like it is and leaves out the fluff.  If elected to be the next president, he will apparently be leaving out the fluff on IRS tax forms as well.  In describing his tax plan, he suggested that there will be relaxed filing requirements for individual taxpayers who earn less than $25,000 and married taxpayers who earn less than $50,000. Those who fall into this group would not pay taxes under Trump’s tax plan. Not only would they be exempt from paying taxes, but it appears that they would enjoy some kind of exemption from filing taxes as well. Instead of the regular Form 1040 income tax return, these economically disadvantaged households would simply send in their one-page form to the IRS stating “I win.”

I realize that Trump was speaking figuratively in referring to this “I win” form, but part of me would love to see something like that.  Would it come with instructions like most other IRS forms? The instructions might read something like this: “If you earn less than $25,000 (individual) or $50,000 (couples) then you win.  If you win, sign and date the form.” How refreshing it would be to see something so simple and straightforward in the IRS’ document library. Would the font be huge in an attempt to fill the page? Or would they use a standard size font so as to allow room for some cute graphics or a head shot of the Donald? The new “I win” form would certainly pose some new kinds of challenges and questions for the IRS.

All joking aside, doesn’t this comment show that Trump is way out of touch with reality — at least on a subconscious level? To him the biggest win he can imagine is avoiding taxes and keeping a bigger share of his earnings. But ask some of those trying to survive on $25,000 per year if they think they are winning. I’m not sure they would agree.

Trump’s tax plan would also include capping the tax rate for businesses at 15 percent. And the highest effective tax rate would be reduced from nearly 40 percent to 25 percent for individuals. By limiting the number of exemptions wealthy taxpayers can claim, Trump says they (he) will pay higher taxes. But some experts believe that will not be the result given the tax rate reductions he is proposing.

Audit Resistant Partnerships on the Rise

The IRS generally can include returns filed within the last three years in a tax audit.  There are exceptions, but the IRS normally does not go back further than three years.  What you may not know is that the IRS has the same amount of time to audit large partnerships.  According to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), it takes the IRS about 18 months of preparation and fact finding before they can even begin this type of audit.  GAO considers a partnership large if it has more than 100 partners and $100 million or more in assets.

The GAO report underscores the necessity of tax reform.  There are some 20-year old provisions, such as this one, that don’t make sense anymore.  Large partnerships can be very complex, with multiple tiers of partners, making it very difficult to determine where to start.  Many of today’s large partnerships are finance and insurance firms, and it’s great for them, but the IRS really hasn’t been able to effectively audit them.

This problem has become more acute in the past 10 years or so since the number of pass-through entities such as partnerships has been on the rise and the number of corporations has been declining.  Very interesting statistics from GAO:

The number of large partnerships has more than tripled to 10,099 from tax year 2002 to 2011. Almost two-thirds of large partnerships had more than 1,000 direct and indirect partners, had six or more tiers and/or self reported being in the finance and insurance sector, with many being investment funds.

"Citizens United" Hopes to Abolish the IRS

There are many taxpaying citizens, and even a handful of lawmakers, who are fed up with the IRS’ mistakes and scandals and would like to see the 100-year-old agency simply disappear.  One such lawmaker is Senator Rand Paul.  He and the group Citizens United are hoping to completely and immediately abolish the IRS.

You can read their petition here.

They believe that a “streamlined and easy to understand tax code” would eliminate the need for the IRS.  That sounds great.  Who doesn’t want to simplify the tax laws these days?  But I don’t know that there is too much substance to the position of Citizens United, at least none that I can find on their website.  It just seems way too radical and hasty the way they propose to make this transition.  The problem is that they don’t really propose any kind of transition at all; they just want to be done with the IRS immediately.  In their words:

Be it now therefore resolved that we, the undersigned, demand the immediate abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service . . . [t]hat the Internal Revenue Service be abolished in its entirety by Congress without delay, excuses, or prevarication.

“Prevarication” basically means lies.  But Senator Paul is lying to himself if he thinks we can really just abolish the IRS right away without a plan in place for the aftermath.  Our nation has contemplated comprehensive tax reform for years now, but nothing has really been done about it.  I’m not sure total abolishment of the IRS is a good idea, but even if it were, it would not be something we could realistically do overnight.  This kind of change would be much like turning a giant ocean liner; it’s a slow, incremental change.

Tax Reform: Is this the Year?

Lawmakers have, for years now, talked about simplifying the tax code — an enormous project that nobody seems to be committed to tackling.  It would be a difficult task even if lawmakers could agree on the changes, but partisan differences further complicate the task.  Maybe it takes some kind of tragic event to kick them into gear and make it a priority.  Maybe the recent IRS scandal is just the thing.

Two lawmakers hope that’s the case.  David Camp, a Michigan Republican, and Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, believe that the IRS scandal puts the complexity of the tax code on center stage once again.  Here’s how:

The complexity of the law didn’t require the IRS to target people for their political beliefs [but] I think giving the IRS less discretion is going to be important, and that’s what a simplified code would do.

~ David Camp, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee

Well, first I’m not sure a simplified code would really give the IRS less discretion.  And second, I’m not sure less discretion is always best.  I suppose if we take enough out of the tax code to effectively reduce and minimize the role of the IRS, then that could result in less discretion.  But if a simplification results in less detail where detail is needed, then it may have the opposite effect.  Generally speaking, I think the wordier the law, the less opportunity for discretion.

In my experience with IRS collections and tax relief cases, I would prefer more discretion as long as it is coupled with better training and more highly qualified personnel.  It is that inability to think outside the box and make common sense decisions that gives the IRS a bad name and creates so much frustration on the part of taxpayers and their representatives.



The TAS Approach to Tax Reform

image via

If you recently read (or re-read) the unabridged English version of Les Misérables in anticipation of the movie that came out on Christmas day, your eyes consumed approximately 531,000 words.  This is slightly less than the word count in the Bible, which is somewhere between 800,000 – 900,000 depending on who you ask.  And if you can even imagine it, the US Tax Code contains about 4 million words!  That is almost 4 times the length of the entire Harry Potter series!

Practically everyone agrees that our tax code is too complicated, too detailed, and too long.  Tax reform and simplification was the top concern expressed by Nina Olson, National Taxpayer Advocate, in her annual report to Congress.  The complexity of the tax code breeds a number of negative consequences, including uncertainty for those with tax questions and unfair results for those seeking tax relief.

The strategy that the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) recommends is to start with a clean slate by wiping out all “tax expenditures” such as exclusions, exemptions, deductions, and credits.  Then lawmakers would need to methodically decide what is absolutely necessary before bringing it back.  TAS calls this a “zero-based budgeting” approach.

I would call this the “messy closet” approach, and I like it.  Sometimes a closet gets to the point where the only way you can regain order is by taking everything out and starting over.

What does the Individual Mandate Mean to the IRS?

The Supreme Court’s recent decision to characterize the ObamaCare individual mandate as a tax will have significant repurcussions on efforts to simplify the tax code and the tax collection “business.”  In other words, it’s just going to complicate things.  That’s what happens when domestic policy initiatives are enacted through this nation’s tax laws.  And just as the tax code tends to be the “catch all” for implementing new policy, the IRS has consequently become that agency we constantly turn to for help with enforcing it.  It must be like achieving a new position at work with new responsibilities, but no pay raise!

Under Obama’s health care reform initiative, if you do not purchase health insurance, you will be charged a “tax” that will be enforced by none other than the Internal Revenue Service.  Besides adding complexity to the tax code, this new tax will be adding work to an already overburdened federal agency.  The IRS has been asked to take on new responsibilities before, so there should be no question as to whether or not it will be up for the task.  However, the costs will be staggering.  The IRS will have to implement new procedures, hire new staff, train old staff, and otherwise do what is necessary to enforce the new health care tax.

With more and more people piling up tax debts that they can’t afford to pay, the private tax relief firms may be the only ones that stand to benefit from all this.

Romney on Tax Reform

Mitt Romney has written an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal describing his vision for tax reform and tax relief.  He identifies problems with the tax code as one of our countries top problems:

  • record-breaking unemployment
  • deficit spending
  • big inefficient government & lack of leadership
  • screwed up tax code

I believe we must make the tax code simpler and fairer. We must reduce tax rates for job creators to promote economic growth. And we must still raise enough revenue to stop the endless borrowing that threatens American prosperity.

Romney lists 5 specific changes he would implement if he were elected the next US president:

  1. across-the-board 20% reduction in marginal individual tax rates
  2. reduce the corporate tax rate to 25%, transition from a world-wide taxation system to a territorial one, and make the R&D tax credit permanent
  3. maintain the low 15% rate on capital gains & eliminate it entirely for those earning below $200,000
  4. get rid of the AMT and the death tax
  5. bring stability to the tax code by making these changes permanent

Read the full op-ed piece here.  I’m not sure how he would achieve #5, although it sounds great.  So would that mean the Turbo Tax software I purchase in 2012 would also work for tax years 2013, 2014, 2015 . . . ?!

Tax Reform? Probably Not in our Lifetime.

Geithner’s comments on the tax reform timeline:

We’re going to begin to think about laying the groundwork for a series of meetings to be held in the very near future wherein we will lay the framework for a discussion regarding when and how we will start to seriously think about how we are going to make informal suggestions in preparation for real tax reform.

Ok, obviously I’m paraphrasing here.  But it went something like this.  Read his actual statement here.

How Far are We from Major Tax Reform?

Lawmakers are proposing drastic tax policy changes that could have a substantial impact on regular taxpaying Americans and their access to tax relief. According to tax lobbyist, Kenneth Kies, we could expect a major tax code revision by 2013 under the following conditions:

  1. Republicans would have to maintain control of the House
  2. The president would need to bring around conservative lawmakers
  3. Ideally it would be a Republican president with a more moderate tax reform agenda

Kies likes Newt Gingrich for this task. He does not see the time spent on tax reform now to be a waste of time, even what may have been done by the (failed) super committee. Some of what is done now could be laying the groundwork for real reform in the months and years to come.

The 4809 “Informational” Letter Campaign

Throughout the month of November, tax preparers across the nation will be grumbling about having received IRS Notice 4809, some under their breath, and some publicly.

One of the gripes I am seeing is that people don’t appreciate feeling like the target of some IRS sting operation. The letters were meant to be informative, but the tone of the letter comes across a little accusatory and condescending.

Funny how 4809 is indicative of a broader problem with our nation’s tax system, one which the Commish touched on in his recent speech to an audience at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Much of his speech focused on the need to simplify the tax code:

[M]aking the tax code less complex is the single most important thing that could be done to improve taxpayer service and boost compliance.

~ IRS Commissioner, Douglas Shulman


Changes to the tax code, even for the goal everyone agrees on – simplicity – are hard because inevitably it means more money for some and less for others.

~ IRS Commissioner, Douglas Shulman

The problem is that “to simplify” usually means “to generalize,” and when you generalize, some people get the shaft. I think that’s what the Commish is saying here. These 4809 letters are no different. The IRS could have made this campaign very complex: it could have conducted extensive research to determine which tax preparers are complying with the law and which are not. The Service could have spent a huge amount of time and money on this project. But instead the IRS decided to simplify and send them out in a “shot gun” strategy to all return preparers who may ever remotely encounter the issues that they wanted to emphasize. In the process, some top notch, extremely competent return preparers are going to be insulted and offended. And, unfortunately, many of those who should be paying attention to the contents of these letters will toss them aside without giving them a second thought.

What we have these days is a tax system that tries to be tailored to every individual and situation, but it’s way too complex. As policymakers consider making drastic changes to the tax code, hopefully they can achieve the desired simplicity without lumping everyone together unfairly.