Will Rogers said it best: "The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has," he once wrote. America's tax system is so complex, he said, that even when you try to prepare your return truthfully, "you don't know when it's through if you are a crook or a martyr."
As April 15 draws closer, many perplexed readers may be wondering where to get clear, reliable, up-to-date tax information. With all the talk about possible tax increases to pay for health care reform and other government measures, some may want to know how tax policy is made. Others may have decided this is the year to prepare their own returns. H&R Block recently said its tax-preparation business has suffered as more people turn to do-it-yourself methods because of the recession and high unemployment.
There are Web sites that can help you prepare your tax return, others that offer general information about taxes and some that focus on policy and the inner workings of the Internal Revenue Service. There also are sites with quirky and amusing tax-related stories. Below is an annotated list of just some of the sources I have found over many years of reporting on the wide world of taxes.
Among the best for keeping up with the daily flow of tax news and commentary is a Web site run by Paul Caron, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. Professor Caron has a fine eye for collecting — or, as modern-day bloggers like to say, “curating” — a wide range of important, curious and even entertaining tax news. Recent postings included an IRS report on tax return data for the wealthiest 400 Americans and observations on the tax treatment of money won by Olympic athletes. He also includes links to other helpful sites, including think tank reports.
For some fun, there is a lengthy collection of tax quotes, wise and witty, assembled by Washington lawyer Jeff Yablon. Mr. Yablon’s lists have appeared in Tax Notes (subscription only), a publication of Tax Analysts, a nonprofit group based in Virginia.
Mr. Yablon’s current list, which is available on his firm’s Web site, includes a quip from humorist Dave Barry, who once observed that our tax laws “are constantly changing as our elected representatives seek new ways to ensure that whatever tax advice we receive is incorrect.”
To Brush Up on Policy
Policy wonks might start with the Joint Committee on Taxation joint House-Senate committee that focuses on tax issues. Its duties include estimating how much tax proposals would benefit or cost the federal government. Those estimates, often referred to as "scoring," can play an important role in the legislative process.
The JCT's Web site has large amounts of helpful background and summaries of tax bills and laws. But you may need a law degree to be able to decipher much of it.
Among the most useful publications are the committee's "Blue Books,"which summarize tax legislation that has been enacted. A recent JCT publication lists tax provisions scheduled to expire through the year 2020. (See "JCX-3-10," dated Jan. 29, 2010.)
The House Ways and Means Committee is one of Congress' most important committees. It is best known for its jurisdiction over tax legislation.
The Senate Finance Committee is the Senate's tax-writing committee. The National Bureau of Economic Research is a private sector organization based in Cambridge, Mass. that produces many excellent reports on taxes and tax policy. Its president is James Poterba, a professor of economics at MIT.
To Do Your Own Taxes
If you decide to prepare your own return, you might start with the Internal Revenue Service Web site, which has an enormous amount of helpful information. But it can be tricky to navigate, at least initially.
For a general guide to individual income taxes, see IRS Publication 17. It may not be the most gracefully written document you've ever read, but it is well organized and will answer many routine questions. It also includes some helpful tips and can guide you to other IRS publications on more specialized topics.
TurboTax, a unit of Intuit Inc., includes helpful consumer tax tips and calculators. For example, it includes a remarkably clear and lucid explanation of the expanded First-Time Homebuyer Credit, which doesn't apply only to first-time homebuyers. Anyone who can write a clear explanation of that law deserves honorable mention.
To Resolve Problems with the IRS
Those having a problem with the IRS should check out the National Taxpayer Advocate on the IRS site. This organization within the IRS is designed to help taxpayers who haven't been able to resolve thorny problems through the usual channels. It can be very helpful in cutting through bureaucratic red tape. Since 2001 the office has been run by Nina Olson, whose annual report to Congress includes a list of the most difficult problems faced by taxpayers and legislative proposals designed to improve the tax system. The report for 2009 can be found here.
For information on how to contact the nearest Taxpayer Advocate Office, go to this page on the IRS site.
If you can’t resolve your dispute or want to contest an IRS action, the United States Tax Court is the court most people choose if they’re fighting the Internal Revenue Service. The reason: You don’t have to pay the tax ahead of time in order to contest it. The only way to get your case heard in a regular federal district court is to pay the tax first and then file for a refund. Many people can’t afford to do that.
Many Tax Court cases make for colorful reading. Look under “Opinions” for interesting cases. Some involve people who claimed that there is no law requiring them to pay federal income taxes, that paying taxes somehow is voluntary, or that their wages aren't really taxable income. These taxpayers always lose — and often get hit with stiff fines for "frivolous" cases.
For State Tax Information
For information about state taxes, go to the Federation of Tax Administrators or call 202-624-5890. The federation is a Washington-based organization that represents the major tax collection agencies of all the states, plus Washington D.C. and New York City. Its Web site has a wide range of information, including links to state tax forms and a list of states that have offered tax amnesties. In a typical amnesty, a state promises not to prosecute or impose penalties on those who step forward voluntarily and pay what they owe during a certain time period. Many states also offer reduced interest charges, or no interest at all.
To find state tax departments, go to the federation’s site and click on “links.” That will take you to a page with a map of the United States. Click on the state you’re interested in, and you’ll go to that state’s tax department Web site.
For History Buffs
For more general information and some history, you can see presidential tax returns and other historical tax documents at Tax Analysts’ Tax History Project. There you can scrutinize the latest income tax returns of President Obama and Vice President Biden, as well as Sarah Palin's returns for 2006 and 2007. You can even look up Franklin Delano Roosevelt's returns from nearly 100 years ago.
To Improve General Tax Knowledge
Tax Analysts also sponsors the informative site Tax.com, which it says seeks “to improve federal, state and international tax systems, and to make tax administration more transparent.”
The Report of the President’s Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform, commissioned by President Bush, came out in 2005. It includes a handy summary of how the tax system works and provides suggestions for how to improve it. Chapter 2 has a short history of how we got where we are today.
Even though this report was widely ignored, it probably will be dusted off the next time a president decides to focus on overhauling the tax system. That won't be any time soon. But it's coming.
Tom Herman is a former Wall Street Journal reporter.