My daughter is learning about volume and liquid capacity in her math class. She frequently asks me questions like, “How many quarts are in a gallon?” or “How many pints are in a quart?” There are many analogies one could use for tax season, but volume and capacity are great examples for the mind’s eye. So, how is tax season like a gallon of milk?
The 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed by Congress in 1909 and ratified in 1913, established Congress’s right to impose a federal income tax. At that time, Congress established March 1 as the deadline for filing returns. In 1918, Congress moved the filing deadline to March 15, and in 1955 Congress moved the filing deadline to April 15, where it remains today as National Tax Day.
In 1955, there were 929 pages in the federal tax code. This is our gallon of milk. Tax season is our container, and milk represents the federal tax code. Since 1955, Congress has continued pouring milk (i.e., tax legislation) into a container that was already full — actually, they have poured enough milk to fill an additional six gallons. What would happen if you continued pouring milk into a full container? It would overflow and spill, making a huge mess. You would immediately recognize that you need another container to hold the additional milk. Today, our federal tax code is more than 6,600 pages. Why are we processing seven gallons of milk in a one-gallon container?
Complexity and Timeliness
Not only is the tax code voluminous, it is incredibly complex. The regular passage of tax legislation late in the calendar year is also problematic. Preparers need adequate time to learn new tax laws, and tax software companies need time to update their products. Time constraints are also created by the late arrival of taxpayer information and emerging tax issues lacking clear guidance from the IRS. Lastly, time constraints compound when states are unable to accept electronically filed returns until later in the filing season. Any one of these reasons might alone justify more time to file. Taken together, it is clear that the filing season is too compressed for today’s tax environment.
Form W-2, and most 1099 forms, must be issued by January 31. In the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008, which became Division B of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, Congress granted additional time to brokers furnishing 1099-B forms to allow more time for cost basis reporting. The IRS then expanded upon that in Notice 2009-11 (https://bit.ly/3NZqw9q), allowing the February 15 date to also apply to composite 1099 forms issued by brokerage firms. In 2009, the Journal of Accountancy acknowledged this change (“Late February 1099-B Mailings Will Compress Tax Season for Many”), noting that the later arrival of these tax forms would compress the filing season. Furthermore, brokerage firms have the ability to request an additional 30-day extension, putting their due date at March 15. Brokerage firms also issue corrected tax forms throughout the filing season related to income reallocations. As an example, I was notified by a brokerage firm on April 8 that it was issuing a third round of corrected 1099s to taxpayers and that those corrected 1099s would include income reallocations provided by issuers of securities before the close of business on March 31. The threshold used for issuance of these corrected 1099s was $100. Receiving multiple rounds of corrected tax forms within one filing season causes confusion among taxpayers and takes time from tax professionals. If issuers of securities have a grace period for reallocating income and brokers have additional time to issue 1099 forms, why has the filing deadline remained unchanged?
In February 2022, the Government Accountability Office testified before the Senate Finance Committee that the IRS disconnected 53% of its phone calls while receiving more than a 400% increase in call volume compared to pre-pandemic years (https://bit.ly/39qNPtZ). In the same hearing, the National Taxpayer Advocate testified that in 2021, the IRS answered 11% of its calls (https://bit.ly/3HvvY1p). According to National Taxpayer Advocatete stimony in April before the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, the IRS answered about 10% of its calls this past filing season, a notable falloff from their projection last November to answer approximately 35% of its calls (https://bit.ly/3Qm8P5D). When the IRS has millions of unprocessed returns and cannot answer a majority of its calls, is it fair to subject taxpayers to penalties related to timely filing compliance?
Tax professionals serve a vital role in the U.S. voluntary tax system. Tax preparers keep taxpayers honest. CPAs are the liaison between taxpayers and the IRS. It is important for both the Treasury Department and taxpayers that tax filings are accurate; we need adequate time in our filing season in order to prepare accurate returns. Treasury needs us to do our job well, not be overworked, exhausted, and sprinting to an outdated tax deadline. The accounting profession is suffering (https://bit.ly/3xR2EPQ)—not only is there declining enrollment in accounting programs, there is a widening gap between accounting graduates and CPA exam candidates (https://bit.ly/3HvTYSi). Imagine providing work to a team of 100 employees; soon after, 65 employees quit/retire. Would you expect the remaining 35 employees to do the same amount of work in the same amount of time? This decline needs to be reversed—the future of our profession is at stake. In the meantime, as people vacate the profession, or vacate tax compliance work as a service line, the remaining tax professionals are struggling to absorb the clients and work left behind within the time constraints of filing season.
When an individual taxpayer files an extension request with the IRS, it only grants additional time to file the tax return; it does not extend the time to pay. Without almost fully preparing their tax return, it is difficult to properly calculate an individual’s tax liability. The extension request process for most pass-through entities, in comparison, is quick and painless. For a partnership or subchapter S corporation, the extension form is so simple, one could argue that those extensions should be granted automatically. For individual taxpayers, the extension request must be accompanied by a full satisfaction of tax liability for the year, or the taxpayer faces penalties and interest. An individual taxpayer’s liability calculation can be tedious and time-consuming during an already compressed filing season. Could the extension process for individuals be simplified, or even made automatic? Could penalty assessment begin after the extended deadline, rather than the original deadline?
The evolution of technology warrants an evolution to Tax Day. Taxpayers today have issues affecting their tax returns that simply did not exist in 1955. Taxpayers have remote work capabilities. The emergence of digital currencies and nonfungible tokens adds complexity to today’s tax returns without clear IRS guidance in this area. The IRS now asks a question on Form 1040 about whether or not the taxpayer received, sold, exchanged, or otherwise disposed of any financial interest in any virtual currency. The intricacy of cryptocurrency taxation calls for not only better guidance from the IRS, but also adequate time for preparers to figure out the tax effects and for taxpayers to gather the information needed to report taxable transactions.
Solving the Problem
There’s no use crying over spilled milk, right? Instead, I propose we do what CPAs do best: problem-solve. In response to a petition I published on Change.org (https://bit.ly/3OcDKPU), I have heard great ideas from other professionals. For example, one professional suggested that our filing season should be February 15–May 15 in order to allow more time for the IRS and states to focus the early part of the season on getting their electronic filing systems up and running sufficiently. Another professional suggested that first-quarter estimated tax payments should not coincide with the tax filing deadline; instead, this should be some later date. Still another suggested that tax filing could be aligned to the taxpayer’s birth month. There are many options to consider, and I certainly don’t claim to have the right answer to the problem. I wholeheartedly believe that Congress has packed too much legislation into the timeframe allowed for compliance; the demands of filing season are the root cause of decreasing interest in our profession. We can’t keep pouring milk without adjusting the size of our container.
What if Tax Day permanently moved to May 15 or June 15? Recognizing that the profession consists of those who want the deadline permanently moved and those who don’t, what if the compromise is to simplify individual extensions and allow them to also extend the time to pay? Take that a step further: What if extensions were automatically granted without the need to file a piece of paper, similar to FinCEN Form 114 (FBAR)? In the meantime, is it fair to hold taxpayers to a penalty regime while the IRS struggles to provide basic services? With each passing tax season, it seems more and more difficult to meet an April 15 deadline. We are long overdue for an update to National Tax Day. In order to do our job well, CPAs need adequate time in the filing season. We need a functional and modernized IRS. Taxpayers deserve better. We deserve better.