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A Free Direct E-filing Tax Return System is a Fundamental Taxpayer Right

Posted on May 1, 2023

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) directed the IRS to a report on “the cost (including options for differential coverage based on taxpayer adjusted gross income and return complexity) of developing and running a free direct efile tax return system, including costs to build and administer each release, with a focus on multi-lingual and mobile-friendly features and safeguards for taxpayer data;” as well as surveys of taxpayer opinions, expectations, and trust and an independent third-party assessment of feasibility, etc. (IRA § 10301(1)(B). The IRA included an appropriation of $15 million toward that effort. The report is due to be delivered to Congress on or before May 16, 2023.  It already has been the subject of much commentary and speculation, and this last week both the Wall Street Journal and Fox News touted findings from a leaked study by MITRE that allegedly reports survey results about taxpayers willingness to utilize an IRS direct file application.  Contrary to what these media reports conclude, the reported survey data (which I have not seen so cannot verify) show that a majority of US taxpayers appear to prefer some type of IRS direct e-file or automatically populated and calculated tax return.  But more on that later.

I witnessed the inception of the e-filing movement since my days as an unenrolled return preparer and more intimately during my service as the National Taxpayer Advocate. At the time I entered the IRS, Treasury and the White House wanted the IRS to create a free direct filing program that would be accessible through the website. Commissioner Rossotti and Terry Lutes, then director of electronic tax administration, argued the IRS did not have the bandwidth to develop such a project itself and proposed entering into an agreement with commercial software companies to offer their products for free to share of the individual taxpayer population. This decision was driven by two concerns: (1) the Congressional mandate to achieve 80% e-filing of all federal tax and information returns by 2007 (IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 §2001(a)); and (2) the IRS’s limited capacity to handle another major IT project, given it was digging itself out from a major debacle of the 1990s, in which it blew through $4 billion on a tax systems modernization program without much to show for it.  Thus, the Free File Alliance was born.

At the time, I objected, pointing out that putting off direct filing would just end up with us (the taxpayers), twenty years hence, without any free e-filing product available to all taxpayers, once the commercial companies had established market dominance and then pulled out of the agreement. This has pretty much come to pass.

The concept of direct e-filing has been around for quite some time; here is a post from Les discussing some background and current developments.  In fact, as I reported in my 2012 National Taxpayer Advocate Annual Report to Congress, in the IRS Restructuring Reform Act of 1998, Congress directed the IRS as follows:

Not later than December 31, 2006, the Secretary of the Treasury or the Secretary’s delegate shall develop procedures for the implementation of a return free tax system under which appropriate individuals would be permitted to comply with the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 without making the return required under section 6012 for taxable years beginning after 2007.  (RRA 98 § 2004)

Not later than December 31, 2006, the Secretary of the Treasury or the Secretary’s delegate shall develop procedures under which a taxpayer filing returns electronically (and their designees under section 6103(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986) would be able to review the taxpayer’s account electronically, but only if all necessary safeguards to ensure the privacy of such information are in place.  

RRA 98 § 2005

My thinking about direct file is governed by some first principles that are worth reviewing, before examining some of the arguments raised in opposition to the tax agency providing free direct filing and also sharing an example of what some tax systems are able to deliver to their taxpayers.

First and foremost, no one should have to pay for the privilege of preparing and filing their tax returns. Let’s not forget that taxes are a public good; they are not a commercial product like potato chips or an airline ticket. I don’t care how much or how little taxable income you report; the government has an obligation to provide a method for you to prepare and file your tax returns without having to pay someone to help you – if you are so inclined. Sure, lots of people don’t want to prepare their own tax returns and are perfectly willing to pay someone to do it for you. I know this because I prepared returns from 1975 right up until I joined the IRS in 2001. Each year I would try to convince my clients with the simplest returns that they could do it themselves, but still they wanted to pay me to prepare their tax returns for them. Other taxpayers are comfortable preparing their own return with the assistance of commercial software, that links to their investment or business accounts, or just guides them through the tax maze. Still others use their annual trip to their return preparer as a financial check-up; they discuss retirement or business planning, or just saving for a rainy day. That’s fine too, but if you don’t want to (or can’t) shell out money for the purpose of contributing to the public fisc, the government needs to provide a way for you to prepare and file your tax returns for free. Period.

This brings us to the second underlying principle: choice of filing options is good.  The over 160 million US individual taxpayers are a very diverse lot and, as outlined above, they have very different filing preferences.  Their economic position widely varies – from wage-only/non-itemizing returns (about 59.3 million in Tax Year 2016, or 40% of all returns – see Annual Report research study here for more data) to sole proprietors (including gig economy workers) to taxpayers with complex pass-through income and investments.  This large and diverse tax population can and will support a variety of tax products, including one available for free that is provided by the federal government.

This brings us to our third principle: taxpayers should have access to their own tax data. In the 21st century, data is increasingly available to tax administrators. According to the IRS Data Book, in Fiscal Year 2022, the IRS received 5.4 billion information returns reporting data about income, deductions, and basis in assets. Although taxpayers have the responsibility for complying with the tax laws, a fundamental principle of maintaining and increasing voluntary compliance is making it easy for taxpayers to comply. That includes providing them with the income and other data the IRS receives about them, in order to avoid mistakes and omissions.

Now, the tax world is not static, and neither is the tax preparation environment. What was not possible for tax agencies, technologically, back in the year 2000, is de rigueur for tax agencies today. I have visited with many tax agencies over the decades and have witnessed how far ahead of the IRS they are in delivering free and easily accessible taxpayer accounts and tax preparation vehicles. While some offer fully pre-populated returns, many others offer taxpayers the ability to see the income information the tax agency has about them, and either enter that information into a free online filing app, to be supplemented by other information such as sole-proprietorship income, or download the information to provide to one’s return preparer or import it into commercial tax preparation products.

If you are interested to see what a government-provided tax account with free online filing might look like, take a look at this demo of the Australian Tax Office’s taxpayer account here. You can access the app on your smart phone, tablet, laptop, etc. Australia has been building this in chunks since, oh, the early 2000s. It takes about 15 minutes for taxpayers to file a return on this app, compared to the 8 hours the IRS estimates under the Paperwork Reduction Act for the non-business returns (3 hours for actual preparation). Australians have choice, but about 37.5% (4.5 million out of 12 million) of individual filers prepare their return via the app for free.  (Les and I visited with ATO officials in late March/early April this year, for a Center for Taxpayer Rights project, and they kindly shared this demo with us then.)

So, what do the critics say about all this?  Some of the arguments are re-hashed from back in the 2000s.

  1. Direct filing with the IRS will enable the IRS to see all the changes you make in the process of preparing your return.  First of all, this argument shows ignorance of the powers Congress has granted to the IRS to administer the tax law.  The IRS is able to issue summons for any document or record (including electronic records) that is relevant to its investigation of a tax return.  The attorney-client privilege doesn’t apply to return preparation, and there is no absolute federal return preparer privilege.  So, regardless of whether you file electronically or on paper directly with the government, or through a software product, or through a return preparer, if the IRS wants to see the documents, drafts, etc. of what went into preparing a tax return, generally, it can get it.  As the NTA Annual Reports demonstrate year after year after year in reporting on the most litigated issues, quashing an IRS summons through the courts is very difficult.

  2. Direct filing with the IRS will enable the IRS to impose upon you the government’s interpretation of law.  The fear here is the IRS will build into the software certain rules such that will prevent some taxpayers from claiming a particular deduction or credit via an e-filed return.  To some extent this is already happening today – e.g., the IRS rejects e-filing of returns (commercially or otherwise prepared) where the taxpayer or dependent has been claimed on an earlier e-filed return for that year.  The IRS still allows the taxpayer to file a return on paper claiming the child, and then sorting out who is entitled to the child-related benefits later on in the process.  This approach violates the Beard v. Commissioner rule of what constitutes a return.  My understanding is Treasury is aware of this issue.  The way to address this issue is to require open source access to the underlying assumptions of the direct filing tool – that way the tax community can identifying assumptions built into the program.  Another protection is to replace the e-file rejection with a simple pop-up notifying the taxpayer of the issue (duplicate filing of a child, claim for a credit in excess of the number of years allowed, etc.) but allow the taxpayer to proceed with e-filing the original return if they choose to do so.  There are solutions to these concerns that will protect the rights of all taxpayers, not just those who use the IRS direct filing tool.

  3. Direct filing with the IRS competes with the private sector.  This proposition is similar to saying the Government Printing Office has been and is competing with the private sector by printing paper tax forms, instructions, and publication.  Geez, folks, it is a federal tax code, not a private commercial tax code.  In the 21st century, an IRS direct file option is the digital analog to the government-printed paper return of the 20th century.

  4. There already is a free direct filing option – namely, filing on paper.  This argument was floated by a spokesperson for Intuit.  The National Taxpayer Advocate has called paper kryptonite for the IRS.  Anyone who has been anywhere other than hiding under a rock for the last three years knows we need to eliminate as much paper as possible from our tax filing system.  Moreover, for those who rely on refundable tax credits and other refunds in order to meet basic living expenses, filing on paper is not a justifiable option., given the significant delays, even in the best of times, that are associated with paper tax return processing.

  5. Nobody wants to use an IRS direct filing option. This is what the Wall Street Journal editorial and Fox News reported as the ultimate findings of the leaked Mitre survey. I have not seen this survey – I assume it will be provided to Congress and made public along with the IRS and other third party report due May 16th – so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of what is being reported. But taking the reported numbers at face value, the survey actually shows a substantial level of support for an IRS direct filing option. Here are a few data points the media reported: When asked if they would use direct e-file if it included preparation of state returns, 15% of respondents said they would direct e-file; 48% said they would use their current software; and 37% said they would prefer the IRS to automatically file their individual taxes for them (the pre-population option).  (Without the state option, 12% said they would use direct e-file and 60% would use current software.)

So let’s parse these numbers.  In Fiscal Year 2022, the IRS received over 160.5 million individual income tax returns.  Of those, 3.2 million were prepared and filed via the free Free File Alliance option, the products offered up in 2001 as an alternative to the IRS direct filing proposal.  15% of 160.5 million is over 24 million taxpayers, or a 750% increase in free electronic preparation and filing.  12% is 19.2 million taxpayers, or an over 600% increase.  Contrary to how this data has been presented in the press, the survey responses show that a significant number of taxpayers find a direct filing option very desirable, while allowing for alternative choices.  In fact, when including the 37% who say they would like the IRS to automatically calculate their taxes, a majority of US taxpayers see an IRS role in return preparation as a positive thing.

Since 2002 or so, I have publicly advocated for the IRS to provide a free, direct electronic return preparation and filing app that allows taxpayers to download their tax data either into that application, or into commercial and tax preparers’ return preparation products.  This approach honors the government’s fundamental obligation to the taxpayers who fund it, while protecting taxpayer choice and transparency.  Less inclusive approaches impose burden and cost on taxpayers, which in turn breeds taxpayer resentment.  Moreover, the direct filing option is an immediate and natural outgrowth of a robust online taxpayer account, which everyone agrees is a necessary component of a modern tax system.  So, unless you want a tax system that is mired in the mid-20th century, it would be good to keep an open mind when reviewing the upcoming IRS Direct File report.

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