TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Fluctuating Math Errors in Americans’ Tax Returns

538FiveThirtyEight:  The Fluctuating Math Errors in Americans’ Tax Returns:

Seeing as Tuesday night is the deadline for filing tax returns, and seeing as data is FiveThirtyEight’s raison d’être, I was excited to find a set of statistics titled “Math Errors on Individual Income Tax Returns, by Type of Error.” Even better, that data has been published for tax years from 2001 to 2012.

It’s unsurprising that some Americans make mistakes on their taxes; the 1040 form (the primary tax form) has 77 line items, as well as a 189-page appendix of instructions. But Internal Revenue Service data shows that math mistakes — potentially an indication of how confusing that form is — have changed a lot over time.


Why does the number of errors fluctuate so much? ...

Moving from facts to theory, the decrease in errors since 2009 might also partly be explained by the increase in use of TaxACT, TaxSlayer, TurboTax and other online filing services. That assumes that such providers are less prone to mistakes than alternative solutions, such as Americans calculating their own taxes or using traditional accountants. The National Taxpayers Union has claimed that is not a safe assumption.

(Hat Tip: David Herzig.)

IRS News, Tax | Permalink


Keep in mind that an IRS "math error" is often nothing that my daughter the math teacher would call a "math error." For example, it can be a questionable claim for First-Time Home Buyer Credit, which Congress gave IRS the power to disallow in 2009. (Incidentally, if you do the math on "First Time," you find that it means "Not In Last Three Years.")

I believe IRS maintains data on math errors by type, but I doubt they will release that.

Posted by: Bob Kamman | Apr 16, 2014 1:21:07 PM

Are the tax programs like Turbo Tax infallible? Ask Timothy Geithner.

Posted by: Andy Patterson | Apr 17, 2014 6:50:20 AM

The bar graph also seems to correspond to the economy. "Math errors" look to be more prevalent in years around economic downturns. This could be caused by a number of things associated with recessionary times. I would like to see a longer time-line on this.

Posted by: Publius Novus | Apr 17, 2014 6:54:33 AM

It clearly tracks with the Great Recession. It's corollary, not statistical, but I see stressed consumers calculating taxes owed more "narrowly" in the downturn.

Posted by: Greg fries | Apr 17, 2014 10:34:45 PM