Myths are not reality, even if they do reflect basic truths. A cherished myth in tax law is that ours is a system of “voluntary self-assessment.” Last week’s opinion in Ramsay v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-223 (Nov. 15, 2017), teaches a lesson about that myth.
This myth is not reality. Despite the rhetoric of hobbyists, it is not as though taxpayers have any legal choice in the matter: the law requires them to file returns, report their income and deductions, calculate their taxes, and pay any amounts owed when the return is filed. IRC §§ 6201-6204. Congress weaves together civil and criminal penalties to enforce these duties and leaves the ever unpopular IRS to swing the net. Like Bentham’s Panopticon, the discipline of self-reporting and payment cannot be divorced from the constant coercive threat of discovery and the resulting civil or criminal sanctions.
But there is a basic truth behind the myth. Tax administration rests on taxpayers truthfully disclosing their financial affairs and paying what they owe — through withholding or otherwise — without overt government compulsion. It is “voluntary” in the same sense that stopping one’s car at a red light — at midnight with no traffic and no one looking — is voluntary. It is each citizen’s self-enforcement of the legal duty that keeps both the tax and transportation systems running smoothly. With hundreds of millions of returns filed each year, the system depends on the veracity, not the kindness, of taxpayers.
The myth exists because of IRS decisions just after World War I to start accepting initial returns as presumptively accurate if properly filed. For those interested I explain both the history of tax return processing, and how it started the myth in Theory and Practice in Tax Administration, 29 Va. Tax Rev. 227 (2009).
Mr. Ramsay appears to be the kind of taxpayer who helps the system work. He filed his returns timely. He was careful to be in an overpayment posture at the end of each year. He cautiously directed that part of each year’s overpayment be applied to the following year’s tax liability. He appears to be a model of a taxpayer working within the system.
But when Mr. Ramsay made two mistakes on his 2011 return, he discovered he was unable to fix one of them precisely because ours is not a “self-assessment” system. When a taxpayer attempts to correct a mistake by amending a return, the IRS does not use the same presumption it uses when processing the initial return. Mr. Ramsay learned that lesson the hard way. You can learn it by clicking below the fold.
November 20, 2017 in Bryan Camp, New Cases, Tax Practice And Procedure | Permalink
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