The Myth of Voluntary Compliance
By: Bill E. Branscum
Copyrights 2002

The purveyors of tax protest strategies hold seminars where, for a fee, they share "secrets" like the fact that, "the IRS tax system depends upon voluntary compliance." In support thereof, they rely upon various IRS publications and they use this statement to support their conclusion that the American taxpayer is being duped into believing that he has no choice but to pay. The word "voluntary," after all, implies "choice."

True, absolutely true. The Internarl Revenue Code does depend entirely upon voluntary compliance and the taxpayer has a choice - in precisely the same way that the traffic code depends upon voluntary compliance and we drivers have a choice. Just as no state, county or city is equipped to force compliance upon drivers if they all suddenly decided to drive at whatever speed, and upon whatever side of the road, they chose, the IRS couldn't possibly force every taxpayer to pay his tax obligation if we all decided to quit filing.

Does that mean we don't have to file a tax return? Tell ya what, rather than risk incurring the wrath of the federal government, why don't you just go drive around in total disregard for the traffic code for a while and see what happens.

No need to take my word for it, you can read what the court had to say in BARRY PHILLIP FIEGEL, Petitioner v. COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE, Respondent.

There is also, Jane Woods, Plaintiff, v. Commissioner, Internal Revenue Service

For further reading UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Petitioner, vs. LARRY A. HARTMAN and MARGUERITE C. HARTMAN, Respondents

Some assert that they are not required to file federal tax returns because the filing of a tax return is voluntary. Proponents point to the fact that the IRS itself tells taxpayers in the Form 1040 instruction book that the tax system is voluntary. Additionally, the Supreme Court’s opinion in Flora v. United States, 362 U.S. 145, 176 (1960), is often quoted for the proposition that "[o]ur system of taxation is based upon voluntary assessment and payment, not upon distraint."

The word “voluntary,” as used in Flora and in IRS publications, refers to our system of allowing taxpayers to determine the correct amount of tax and complete the appropriate returns, rather than have the government determine tax for them. The requirement to file an income tax return is not voluntary and is clearly set forth in Internal Revenue Code §§ 6011(a), 6012(a), et seq., and 6072(a). See also Treas. Reg. § 1.6011-1(a).

Any taxpayer who has received more than a statutorily determined amount of gross income is obligated to file a return. Failure to file a tax return could subject the noncomplying individual to criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment, as well as civil penalties. In United States v. Tedder, 787 F.2d 540, 542 (10th Cir. 1986), the court clearly states, “although Treasury regulations establish voluntary compliance as the general method of income tax collection, Congress gave the Secretary of the Treasury the power to enforce the income tax laws through involuntary collection . . . . The IRS’ efforts to obtain compliance with the tax laws are entirely proper.”

Further Relevant Case Law:

Helvering v. Mitchell, 303 U.S. 391, 399 (1938) – the U.S. Supreme Court stated that “[i]n assessing income taxes, the Government relies primarily upon the disclosure by the taxpayer of the relevant facts . . . in his annual return. To ensure full and honest disclosure, to discourage fraudulent attempts to evade the tax, Congress imposes [either criminal or civil] sanctions.”

United States v. Tedder, 787 F.2d 540, 542 (10th Cir. 1986) – the court upheld a conviction for willfully failing to file a return, stating that the premise “that the tax system is somehow ‘voluntary’ . . . is incorrect.”

United States v. Richards, 723 F.2d 646, 648 (8th Cir. 1983) – the court upheld conviction and fines imposed for willfully failing to file tax returns, stating that the claim that filing a tax return is voluntary “was rejected in United States v. Drefke, 707 F.2d 978, 981 (8th Cir. 1983), wherein the court described appellant’s argument as ‘an imaginative argument, but totally without arguable merit.’”

Johnson v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 1999-312, 78 T.C.M. (CCH) 468, 471 (1999) – the court found Johnson liable for the failure to file penalty and rejected his argument “that the tax system is voluntary so that he cannot be forced to comply” as “frivolous.”

In a similar vein, some argue that they are not required to pay federal taxes because the payment of federal taxes is voluntary. Proponents of this position argue that our system of taxation is based upon voluntary assessment and payment.

The Law: The requirement to pay taxes is not voluntary and is clearly set forth in section 1 of the Internal Revenue Code, which imposes a tax on the taxable income of individuals, estates, and trusts as determined by the tables set forth in that section. (Section 11 imposes a tax on the taxable income of corporations.) Furthermore, the obligation to pay tax is described in section 6151, which requires taxpayers to submit payment with their tax returns. Failure to pay taxes could subject the noncomplying individual to criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment, as well as civil penalties.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that “when a tax return is required to be filed, the person so required ‘shall’ pay such taxes to the internal revenue officer with whom the return is filed at the fixed time and place. The sections of the Internal Revenue Code imposed a duty on Drefke to file tax returns and pay the . . . tax, a duty which he chose to ignore.” United States v. Drefke, 707 F.2d 978, 981 (8th Cir. 1983).

Further Relevant Case Law:

United States v. Bressler, 772 F.2d 287, 291 (7th Cir. 1985) – the court upheld Bressler’s conviction for tax evasion, noting, “[he] has refused to file income tax returns and pay the amounts due not because he misunderstands the law, but because he disagrees with it . . . . [O]ne who refuses to file income tax returns and pay the tax owing is subject to prosecution, even though the tax protester believes the laws requiring the filing of income tax returns and the payment of income tax are unconstitutional.”

Schiff v. United States, 919 F.2d 830, 833 (2d Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 501 U.S. 1238 (1991) – the court rejected Schiff’s arguments as meritless and upheld imposition of the civil fraud penalty, stating “[t]he frivolous nature of this appeal is perhaps best illustrated by our conclusion that Schiff is precisely the sort of taxpayer upon whom a fraud penalty for failure to pay income taxes should be imposed.”

Packard v. United States, 7 F. Supp. 2d 143, 145 (D. Conn. 1998) – the court dismissed Packard’s refund suit for recovery of penalties for failure to pay income tax and failure to pay estimated taxes where the taxpayer contested the obligation to pay taxes on religious grounds, noting that “the ability of the Government to function could be impaired if persons could refuse to pay taxes because they disagreed with the Government’s use of tax revenues.”

United States v. Gerads, 999 F.2d 1255, 1256 (8th Cir. 1993) – the court stated that “[taxpayers’] claim that payment of federal income tax is voluntary clearly lacks substance” and imposed sanctions in the amount of $1,500 “for bringing this frivolous appeal based on discredited, tax-protestor arguments.”

I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.

© Copyright 2002 - Bill E. Branscum. All Rights Reserved.