The income tax law is a product of all three branches of our federal government:
o The legislative branch, Congress, writes the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), or tax code, for short. Each part, called a Section, has its own number, like IRC § 179.
o The executive branch, specifically the Treasury Department, of which the Internal Revenue Service is a part, publishes interpretations of many tax code provisions. These writings show how the IRS applies the tax code in different situations.
o The judicial branch, the federal courts, interprets the tax code in light of the Constitution and what it divines as Congress’s intent. When the IRS applies the tax code contrary to the Constitution or differently than Congress intended, it may be overruled by the federal courts. These court decisions are published (“reported”) and serve to guide taxpayers on how to interpret the tax code.
This discusses where to find the pronouncements of the government, IRS publications, private tax guides, textbooks, websites, court decisions, and periodicals. Some are free, and most others are reasonably priced. Tax publications for professionals are expensive, but are often available at public or law libraries.
IRS Small Business Website
There is an IRS small business community website to assist the nation’s 45 million business and self-employed taxpayers. This free site provides:
o answers to basic tax questions and a calendar of tax deadlines
o online access to most IRS forms
o industry-specific tax info for specific industries like construction and food service
o tips to avoid common tax problems
o links to court opinions and to rulings and regulations on specific industries
o links to non-IRS sites for general tax information, and
o links to helpful small business resources.
Go to the IRS home page. Click on “Business” and then “Small Business and Self-Employed.” Don’t expect the IRS to tell you how to reduce your tax bill at this site.
IRS Online Publications
The IRS publishes over 350 free booklets explaining the tax code. But where there is a gray area in the law, you can bet you’ll get only the IRS’s interpretation-even if federal courts have made contrary rulings.
These IRS Publications (“Pubs,” for short), range from several pages to several ¬hundred pages in length. Get them at IRS offices, download them online, call 800-829-FORM (3676), or send in an order form. There is no charge, not even for postage.
Every small business person should order a package of IRS forms and publications called Your Business Tax Kit. The kit includes Forms SS-4, Application for Employer Identification Number, and 1040-ES, Estimated Tax for Individuals.
o Pub 334, Tax Guide for Small Business (at 325 pages, the largest booklet)
o Pub 583, Taxpayers Starting a Business
o Pub 910, Guide to Free Tax Services
o Pub 1057, Small Business Tax Education Program Brochure
o Pub 1544, Reporting Cash Payments of Over $10,000, and
o Pub 1779, Employee or Independent Contractor.
You can get all IRS publications, plus 600 forms, IRS Regulations, and back-year tax forms (to 1991) on CD-ROM Publication 1796. Call this toll-free number to order: 877-233-6767, or order online (search for Publication 1796). There is a charge.
All you may need, however, is a free online download called the Small Business Resource Guide, Publication 3207, which contains:
o information on small business topics from various regulatory agencies
o business tax forms, instructions, and publications
o valuable insight on a wide range of topics, from preparing a business plan to keeping records of financing and retirement plans
o informative tutorials, updates, and a multi-agency electronic newsletter.
Go to the IRS website (go to irs dot gov, “Business” and then “Small Business and Self-Employed”) .
The IRS’s free publications run the gamut from good to bad to plain ugly. While some are clearly written and useful, others are misleading, and a few are in an unknown language. I am always amused to see IRS publications with disclaimers warning you against relying on them. The IRS is not legally bound to follow its own writings that explain the tax law. Amazing, isn’t it?
Free IRS and Social Security Telephone/Information
You may talk to a live IRS taxpayer service representative at 800-829-4933 (business tax line). It can be hard to get through from January to May. Avoid calling on Mondays or during lunchtime.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) also has an 800 number: 800-772-1213. It is staffed 7 a.m. to 7/p.m., and has prerecorded business-related topics available 24 hours a day. Among other info available from the SSA, you or an employee of your business can get a statement of earnings, Form W-2, and Form 1099 income information for past years, an estimate of benefits, and new or replacement Social Security cards.
Be alert for bad IRS telephone advice. The IRS is notorious for giving misleading or outright wrong -answers on the phone. IRS folks just aren’t trained to answer more than very simple tax questions. In the IRS’s defense, often taxpayers don’t know how to ask the right questions, or really understand the answers given. Our overly complex tax code is as much to blame as the IRS. Unfortunately, the IRS does not stand behind incorrect oral advice. If you rely on what someone at the IRS tells you and it is wrong, you’ll be liable for any resulting tax plus interest and penalties. If it’s important, double check what the IRS tells you with a tax pro.
Free IRS Programs
In larger metropolitan areas, the IRS offers small business seminars on various topics, such as payroll tax reporting. You can ask questions at these programs, given at schools and federal buildings. Call the IRS at 800-829-1040 to see if programs are offered near you and to get on the IRS small business mailing list.
IRS Written Advice
The IRS is only bound by formal advice to tax¬payers called IRS Letter Rulings. If you want one, you’ll have to pay a fee of $500 to $3,000 or more to the IRS; expect to wait many months for your answer.
For issues where the law isn’t clear, a better (and far cheaper) bet is to look up letter rulings issued to other taxpayers with a similar question-if you can find one. Letter rulings are published in the Internal Revenue Cumulative Bulletin, and in private tax service publications found in larger public and law libraries.
Be warned: It is not easy to find letter rulings on point, even for a tax pro. If you want to try, you should know how these rulings are identified and indexed. For example, “Ltr. Rul. 892012″ refers to a ruling issued in 1989, in the 20th week, and which was the 12th letter ruling issued that week. My suggestion is that you hire a tax pro to do this for you.
Internal Revenue Code
The Internal Revenue Code (IRC) is written by Congress and is nicknamed the code or the tax code. It’s a thick book with tiny print and is found in the reference section of most libraries, the IRS website, IRS offices, tax pros’ offices, and larger bookstores. The IRC is revised annually, mostly minor changes by Congress. More significant revisions to the tax code are made every three to four years.
The IRC is found in Title 26 of the United States Code (U.S.C. for short). The U.S.C. encompasses all of our federal laws. Title simply refers to the place within the massive U.S.C. where the IRC is found.
EXAMPLE: “IRC/179(b)(4)(A)” means that this particular tax law is found in Title 26 of the U.S.C., the Internal Revenue Code, Section 179, subsection b, paragraph 4, subparagraph/A.
The IRC is divided up into sections, which, in turn, are subdivided into more parts, ad infinitum. The tax code is a crazy quilt of laws that apply to everyone along with provisions just for left-handed sheep breeders in New Jersey.
The IRC is available online at the IRS website.
IRS Interpretations of the Tax Code
Congress, when enacting a broadly applicable tax law, can’t foresee all possible situations. So the Treasury Department (the IRS is a part of it) is authorized to issue interpretations of broad tax code provisions. The primary IRS interpretations are called Regulations, Revenue Rulings, Letter Rulings, Revenue Procedures, Announcements, Notices, the Internal Revenue Manual, and IRS forms and instructions.
The most authoritative IRS interpretations are called Treasury Regulations or just Regulations or Regs. Regulations provide the mechanics of how many (but not all) tax code provisions apply. Regulations often include examples, like the ones in this book. They are usually bound in a four- to six-volume set and are found in most larger libraries and some bookstores. Regulations are on the IRS website . Regulations are easier to read than the tax code on which they are based.
Start with the IRC section number. Then check to see if there is a corresponding regulation. It will bear the same number, usually preceded by the numeral “1.” You can do this online at www.irs.gov
EXAMPLE: “Reg. 1.179″ refers to a Treasury regulation interpreting IRC Section 179.
Other IRS pronouncements
The IRS publishes various statements of its position on various tax matters. These pronouncements guide IRS personnel and taxpayers as to how specific tax laws will be applied by the IRS.
IRS Revenue Rulings (Rev. Rul.) are IRS announcements of how the tax law applies to a hypothetical set of facts.
Tax book publishers Prentice-Hall, Commerce Clearing House, and Research Institute of America reprint all IRS Revenue Rulings. Some, but not all, of the IRS Revenue Rulings are on the IRS website. They are indexed by IRC section and subject matter. A Revenue Ruling usually contains a factual example, followed by an explanation of how the tax code applies to those facts. While looking for a Revenue Ruling might pay off, it is not always easy to find one that precisely covers your situation.
EXAMPLE: “Rev. Rul. 92-41″ refers to IRS ¬Revenue Ruling number 41, issued in 1992.
IRS Letter Rulings are IRS answers to specific written questions about more complex tax situations posed by taxpayers. See “IRS Written Advice,” above.
IRS Revenue Procedures (Rev. Procs.) are another way the IRS tells taxpayers exactly how to comply with certain tax code provisions. Rev. Procs. are primarily relied on by tax return preparers. They often explain when and how to report tax items, such as claiming a net operating loss on a tax return. They are contained in the weekly Internal Revenue Cumulative Bulletin, found in larger public and law libraries, and also are reprinted by the tax book publishers mentioned above and on the IRS website
EXAMPLE: “Rev. Proc. 91-15″ refers to a published Revenue Procedure number 15, issued in 1991.IRS announcements and notices. Periodically, the IRS gives general guidance and statements of policy in official announcements and notices similar to press releases. They appear in the weekly Internal Revenue Cumulative Bulletin, which is published at the IRS website. Seldom does it pay to search IRS announcements or notices, as they weren’t intended to answer specific questions.
The Internal Revenue Manual (IRM) is a series of handbooks for IRS employees on tax law. This is one of my favorite free resources. The IRM tells its auditors and collectors how specific tax code provisions should be enforced. The manual is for IRS internal use, but most of it is public and ¬reprinted by private tax book publishers. It is available to the public in larger IRS offices and in law libraries and some tax pros’ offices. Portions of the IRM are also on the IRS website.
The IRM is revealing of IRS positions-for example, the criteria the IRS uses to determine whether reasonable cause exists for cancelling a tax penalty.
IRS forms and instructions are well known to us all, starting with Form 1040, the annual personal income tax return. More than 650 other forms are listed in Publication 676, Catalog of Federal Tax Forms. They are free at IRS offices or by calling 800-829-FORM or 800-829-1040 or at the IRS website . Many IRS forms come with instructions and explanations of the tax law. Always read the instructions before attempting to fill in an IRS form.
Federal courts have interpreted the tax law in thousands of court cases. Tax court decisions are found in the Tax Court Reports. Also, U.S. District Courts, U.S. Courts of Appeal, Court of Federal Claims, U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, and the Supreme Court all rule on tax issues. These court decisions explain tax code sections. Chances are that at least one of these courts has adjudged the point you are interested in; the trick is finding it.
Advice on research. The key to tax research, whether on the Internet or in a law library, is to start with the number of an IRC section, or a court case name, or a general topic, such as depreciation.
The Small Business Administration (SBA) puts out some good publications.
Personal counseling from the SBA is offered by the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) program. These folks are not necessarily tax experts, but if they were in business, they know the tax game. Call the SBA at 800-827-5722 or visit the SBA office nearest you. The SBA also has a very helpful website. Or write to the SBA at 1441 L Street, NW, Washington, DC 20461.
Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) are cosponsored by the SBA and state governments. They are usually affiliated with state universities and provide free or low-cost seminars and counseling to small business owners. To locate an SBDC near you, call the SBA at 800-827-5722.
Other federal agencies offer publications-either free or at reasonable prices-to assist small businesses. PA 15250-7954.
Trade Association Publications
Every business or trade has specialized publications and newsletters that track tax issues in your industry that your tax pro might not know of-perhaps a new case or IRS ruling. Also, speakers on tax topics are often found at conventions and trade shows.
Tax Info Online
There has been an explosion of tax information on the Internet. Surprisingly, the IRS itself has a good website, but it is definitely not the “last word” in tax research.
Start your Internet search with the IRS home page. You can download over 600 IRS forms and publications and peruse summaries of 150 tax topics. Email simple tax questions to the IRS (but remember what I have said about taking tax advice from the IRS with a block of salt).
Internet service providers give you access to search engines like Yahoo! and Google to find tax information from sources, including the National Association of Enrolled Agents and TurboTax. Some sites allow you to post tax questions to experts and receive answers, either for free or a relatively small charge.
Keep in mind the person giving the answer doesn’t really know you and your tax needs. The right tax answer is usually the one tailored to your individual situation-and for that you need the personal touch of meeting with a tax pro.
To go still deeper into cyberspace, use one of the popular search engines such as Google or Yahoo! Be prepared for thousands of listings to pop up. There is a lot of tax nonsense on the chaotic World Wide Web. People can express their views or promote harebrained “untax yourself” schemes. So, watch out. In the tax universe, as elsewhere, if it sounds too good to be true … you know the rest.