The 2018 Tax Software Survey reports that participating CPAs continue to use a variety of free online resources for tax research activities. Most respondents indicated that they use free tax research sources, and some relied solely on free materials. Historically, more ratings have been received for free websites than for the commercial tax research products.
As an important topic for many CPAs, this column has covered free tax research options in the past. The IRS and state tax department websites have typically received the most ratings of the free resources on the Tax Software Survey, with the IRS in particular receiving the highest ratings of the free options for timely updates and company reliability. There are other official tax-related web-sites to explore, which tax professionals may find to be useful alternatives or additions to their research processes. This month’s review focuses on six high-quality options for tax research, hopefully including some that are new to readers.
U.S. Congress, https://www.congress.gov//
The website for the U.S. Congress (http://www.congress.gov) provides timely access to searchable House and Senate legislation, committee reports, and treaties. Users can access current and historical legislation chronologically, as well as search by keywords; in addition, each item includes a progress tracker (http://bit.ly/2R1UGeu). One option for narrowing in on tax legislation is to access the “Committees” main page (https://www.congress.gov/committees) and go to the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees.
Committee reports are presented in a similar manner, with links to the related legislation (http://bit.ly/2R4nLG7). Treaty documents are also available, including downloadable PDFs (http://bit.ly/2EEqeFN).
The U.S. Congress website also links to the Congressional Research Service (https://crsreports.congress.gov), a nonpartisan research agency that examines issues as requested by, and provides the resulting reports to, Congress, as well as makes the studies publicly available. The CRS reports, which are also made publicly available, are intended to aid in understanding policy issues. For tax accountants who are interested in straightforward background information behind existing and proposed tax law, the CRS reports present very helpful and interesting discussions on specific topics. A recent example is “Indexing Capital Gains Taxes for Inflation” (Jane Gravelle, July 24, 2018, http://bit.ly/2PP1GuX), which covers the background behind the recent proposals to index capital asset bases for inflation, including a summary of current tax treatment, an explanation of the indexing plan, and the history of indexing proposals.
U.S. Code, http://uscode.house.gov/
United States Code
The website for the United States Code (http://uscode.house.gov/) presents the entirety of federal law from the U.S. House of Representatives Office of the Law Revision Counsel. Users can either insert Title 26 and the desired Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section in the handy jump-to cells, or click on the Title 26 hyperlink and drill down to the chosen section. The keyword search function also works well, and can be refined to search only Title 26. The individual IRC sections open in a separate window, and include print links.
U.S. Tax Court, https://www.ustaxcourt.gov/
United States Tax Court
The U.S. Tax Court website (http://www.ustaxcourt.gov) provides information about various aspects of the court, including background information and a list of judges. The most important feature for tax accountants is, of course, the “Opinions Search” (http://bit.ly/2q3y01U). Cases can be searched by date, case name, judge, opinion type, or keyword. One useful tool provides explanations of the “search by” features, as well as an extensive tutorial of keyword searching (http://bit.ly/2AmMqjL); the cases can be downloaded as PDFs. A test search of 2018 cases landed on Curtis Eugene Ankerberg v. Comm’r (T.C. Memo 2018-1, January 8, 2018). Ankerberg was an Oregon CPA who disagreed with the IRS about his own tax returns, and the case serves as cautionary tale for other CPAs (http://bit.ly/2yvHZlk).
The Tax Court website offers access to a seven-part video, “An Introduction to the United States Tax Court,” which may be useful for educators and students (http://bit.ly/2S9FVaQ). The entire presentation runs about an hour, although CPAs will be most interested in “Part One: Introduction to the Process” and “Part Two: Introduction to the United States Tax Court,” which are about eight minutes altogether.
Finally, since 2016 the Tax Court has presented a table of Internet sources cited in court opinions (http://bit.ly/2PiinSq).
National Taxpayer Advocate
Readers might be surprised to find the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) listed among tax research websites, but the NTA’s “Annual Report to Congress” (https://taxpayeradvocate.irs.gov/reports) includes the 10 most litigated tax cases for the report year. The information provided includes an introduction chapter, a summary discussion chapter, and separate write-ups on the individual issues. For 2017, the introduction is six pages, lists the top 10 issues, and provides tables of the percentage of pro se cases, as well as their outcomes compared to taxpayers with representation (http://bit.ly/2ys7x2v). The 2017 summary of significant cases is 16 pages and summarizes the NTA’s top 10 cases in one to two pages each (http://bit.ly/2R8Jf4J). The individual topic chapters briefly review the current law, then analyze specific issues using tax cases that were litigated during the report year. For example, in 2017, one highlighted matter was accuracy-related penalties under IRC section 6662(b)(1) and (2), and the NTA’s discussion addresses reasonable cause and good faith reliance on a competent tax professional and access to tax law help (http://bit.ly/2CxRao0). A complete list of court cases that fall under the NTA’s most litigated issues can be found in Volume 1, Appendix 3, Table 1 (http://bit.ly/2SanuCH).
Internal Revenue Bulletins, https://www.irs.gov/irb
Internal Revenue Bulletins
The contents of Internal Revenue Bulletins are generally only available through subscription services; however, the bulletins are available for free on the IRS website (http://www.irs.gov/irb). The bulletins are listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recent first, and are available in HTML and PDF. The “listing” webpage does not provide a search function, but a limited search tool is available at http://bit.ly/2CZYvhh.
Although the U.S. Congress website offers access to treaties, a much easier resource may be the U.S. Department of State Treaty Affairs web page (https://www.state.gov/s/l/treaty/). The “Treaties in Force” webpage (http://bit.ly/2EEX7lQ) provides a link to an almost 600-page PDF of operational treaties as of January 1, 2018. Pages 5–6 present a list of 48 possible categories covered in the treaties, of which number 41 is taxation. The table of contents, on pages 7–9, lists the treaty countries in alphabetical order, and users can then peruse by country of interest. For example, the United States and France have several treaties with respect to taxation, including estate, gift, and inheritances taxes and taxes on income and capital.