In a new business story on NYTimes.com author Randall Stross wonders why in the digital age, taxpayers are still being forced to take the task of preparing a tax return from scratch. Stross argues that since government computers already have important data from employers and financial institutions, the IRS should help taxpayers with their returns.
Requiring taxpayers to file returns without being told what the government already knows makes as much sense “as if Visa sent customers a blank piece of paper, requiring that they assemble their receipts, list their purchases — and pay a fine if they forget one,” said Joseph Bankman, a professor at the Stanford Law School.
Many developed countries now offer taxpayers a return containing all information collected by the taxing authority — to “get the ball rolling by telling you what it knows,” Mr. Bankman says.
It is a stunningly reasonable idea. When you prepare your return, why can’t you first download whatever data the Internal Revenue Service has received about you and, if your return is simple, learn what the I.R.S.’s calculation of your taxes would be? You’d have the chance to check whether the information was accurate, correct it as needed and add any pertinent details — that you’re newly married, for example, or have a new child — before sending it. Far better to discover problems early with the I.R.S., whose say matters more than third-party software’s best guess.
The I.R.S., however, isn’t rushing to offer returns that are already filled in. In the 2009 report to Congress of its Taxpayer Advocate Service, it noted that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama proposed giving taxpayers “the option of pre-filled tax forms to verify, sign and return.” The report said “it is not feasible at this time” because the agency receives W-2 data from the Social Security Administration and 1099 data from financial institutions too late in the filing season, “much later than most eligible taxpayers would be willing to wait.”