Tax noncompliance

Tax noncompliance

Tax noncompliance describes a range of activities that are unfavorable to a state's tax system. These include tax avoidance, which refers to reducing taxes by legal means, and tax evasion which refers to the criminal non-payment of tax liabilities.[1]

Groups that do not comply with taxes include tax protesters and tax resisters. Tax protesters attempt not to pay tax believe that they have discovered interpretations of the law that show that they are not subject to being taxed, whilst tax resisters refuse to pay a tax for conscientious reasons (because the resister does not want to support the government or some of its activities). Tax resisters typically do not take the position that the tax laws are themselves illegal or do not apply to them (as tax protesters do) and they are more concerned with not paying for particular government policies that they oppose.


Difference between avoidance and evasion

The use of the terms tax avoidance and tax evasion can vary depending on the jurisdiction. In general, the term "evasion" applies to illegal actions and "avoidance" to actions within the law. The term "mitigation" is also used in some jurisdictions to further distinguish actions within the original purpose of the relevant provision from those actions that are within the letter of the law, but do not achieve its purpose.

History of the distinction

An avoidance/evasion distinction along the lines of the present distinction has long been recognised but at first there was no terminology to express it. In 1860 Turner LJ suggested evasion/contravention (where evasion stood for the lawful side of the divide): Fisher v Brierly.[2] In 1900 the distinction was noted as two meanings of the word “evade”: Bullivant v AG.[3] The technical use of the words avoidance/evasion in the modern sense originated in the USA where it was well established by the 1920s.[4] It can be traced to Oliver Wendell Holmes in Bullen v Wisconsin.[5] It was slow to be accepted in the United Kingdom. By the 1950s, knowledgeable and careful writers in the UK had come to distinguish the term “tax evasion” from “avoidance”. However in the UK at least, “evasion” was regularly used (by modern standards, misused) in the sense of avoidance, in law reports and elsewhere, at least up to the 1970s. Now that the terminology has received official approval in the UK (Craven v White[6]) this usage should be regarded as erroneous. But even now it is often helpful to use the expressions “legal avoidance” and “illegal evasion”, to make the meaning clearer.

United States

In the United States "tax evasion" is evading the assessment or payment of a tax that is already legally owed at the time of the criminal conduct.[7] Tax evasion is criminal, and has no effect on the amount of tax actually owed, although it may give rise to substantial monetary penalties.

By contrast, the term "tax avoidance" describes lawful conduct, the purpose of which is to avoid the creation of a tax liability in the first place. Whereas an evaded tax remains a tax legally owed, an avoided tax is a tax liability that has never existed.

For example, consider two businesses, each of which have a particular asset (in this case, a piece of real estate) that is worth far more than its purchase price.

  • Business One sells the property and underreports its gain. In this instance, tax is legally due. Business One has engaged in tax evasion, which is criminal.
  • Business Two consults with a tax advisor and discovers that it can structure the sale as a "like kind exchange" (formally known as a 1031 exchange, named after the Code section) for other real estate that it can use. In this instance, no tax is due because (legally, under Section 1031) no sale took place. Business Two has engaged in tax avoidance (or tax mitigation), which is completely within the law.

In the above example, tax may eventually be due when the second property is sold. Whether and how much tax will be due will depend on circumstances and the state of the law at the time. This is true of many tax avoidance strategies.

United Kingdom

The difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion is the thickness of a prison wall.

Denis Healey, The Economist, Volume 354, p.186

The United Kingdom and jurisdictions following the UK approach (such as New Zealand) have recently adopted the evasion/avoidance terminology as used in the United States: evasion is a criminal attempt to avoid paying tax owed while avoidance is an attempt to use the law to reduce taxes owed [I suspect this has not been written by someone who knows anything about UK accounting, the terms tax evasion and tax aviodance have been about in the UK for many many year]. There is, however, a further distinction drawn between tax avoidance and tax mitigation. Tax avoidance is a course of action designed to conflict with or defeat the evident intention of Parliament: IRC v Willoughby.[8] Tax mitigation is conduct which reduces tax liabilities without “tax avoidance” (not contrary to the intention of Parliament), for instance, by gifts to charity or investments in certain assets which qualify for tax relief. This is important for tax provisions which apply in cases of “avoidance”: they are held not to apply in cases of mitigation.

The clear articulation of the concept of an avoidance/mitigation distinction goes back only to the 1970s. The concept originated from economists, not lawyers.[9] The use of the terminology avoidance/mitigation to express this distinction was an innovation in 1986: IRC v Challenge.[10]

In practice the distinction is sometimes clear, but often difficult to draw. Relevant factors to decide whether conduct is avoidance or mitigation include: whether there is a specific tax regime applicable; whether transactions have economic consequences; confidentiality; tax linked fees. Important indicia are familiarity and use. Once a tax avoidance arrangement becomes common, it is almost always stopped by legislation within a few years. If something commonly done is contrary to the intention of Parliament, it is only to be expected that Parliament will stop it. So that which is commonly done and not stopped is not likely to be contrary to the intention of Parliament. It follows that tax reduction arrangements which have been carried on for a long time are unlikely to constitute tax avoidance. Judges have a strong intuitive sense that that which everyone does, and has long done, should not be stigmatised with the pejorative term of “avoidance”. Thus UK courts refused to regard sales and repurchases (known as bed-and-breakfast transactions) or back-to-back loans as tax avoidance.

Other approaches in distinguishing tax avoidance and tax mitigation are to seek to identify “the spirit of the statute” or “misusing” a provision. But this is the same as the “evident intention of Parliament” properly understood. Another approach is to seek to identify “artificial” transactions. However, a transaction is not well described as ‘artificial’ if it has valid legal consequences, unless some standard can be set up to establish what is ‘natural’ for the same purpose. Such standards are not readily discernible. The same objection applies to the term ‘device’.

It may be that a concept of “tax avoidance” based on what is contrary to “the intention of Parliament” is not coherent. The object of construction of any statute is expressed as finding “the intention of Parliament”. In any successful tax avoidance scheme a Court must have concluded that the intention of Parliament was not to impose a tax charge in the circumstances which the tax avoiders had placed themselves. The answer is that the expression “intention of Parliament” is being used in two senses. It is perfectly consistent to say that a tax avoidance scheme escapes tax (there being no provision to impose a tax charge) and yet constitutes the avoidance of tax. One is seeking the intention of Parliament at a higher, more generalised level. A statute may fail to impose a tax charge, leaving a gap that a court cannot fill even by purposive construction, but nevertheless one can conclude that there would have been a tax charge had the point been considered. An example is the notorious UK case Ayrshire Employers Mutual Insurance Association v IRC,[11] where the House of Lords held that Parliament had “missed fire”.

Tax protesters and tax resistance

Some tax evaders believe that they have uncovered new interpretations of the law that show that they are not subject to being taxed (not liable): these individuals and groups are sometimes called tax protesters. Many protesters continue posing the same arguments that the federal courts have rejected time and time again, ruling the arguments to be legally frivolous.

Tax resistance is the refusal to pay a tax for conscientious reasons (because the resister does not want to support the government or some of its activities). They typically do not take the position that the tax laws are themselves illegal or do not apply to them, and they are more concerned with not paying for what they oppose than they are motivated by the desire to keep more of their money.

In the UK case of Cheney v. Conn,[12] an individual objected to paying tax that, in part, would be used to procure nuclear arms in unlawful contravention, he contended, of the Geneva Convention. His claim was dismissed, the judge ruling that "What the [taxation] statute itself enacts cannot be unlawful, because what the statute says and provides is itself the law, and the highest form of law that is known to this country."

Definition of tax evasion in the United States

The application of the U.S. tax evasion statute may be illustrated in brief as follows, as applied to tax protesters. The statute is Internal Revenue Code section 7201:

Any person who willfully attempts in any manner to evade or defeat any tax imposed by this title or the payment thereof shall, in addition to other penalties provided by law, be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not more than $100,000 ($500,000 in the case of a corporation), or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both, together with the costs of prosecution.[13]

Under this statute and related case law, the prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, each of the following three elements:

  1. the "attendant circumstance" of the existence of a tax deficiency — an unpaid tax liability; and
  2. the "actus reus" (i.e., guilty conduct) — an affirmative act (and not merely an omission or failure to act) in any manner constituting evasion or an attempt to evade either:
    1. the assessment of a tax, or
    2. the payment of a tax.
  3. the "mens rea" or "mental" element of willfulness — the specific intent to violate an actually known legal duty;

An affirmative act "in any manner" is sufficient to satisfy the third element of the offense. That is, an act which would otherwise be perfectly legal (such as moving funds from one bank account to another) could be grounds for a tax evasion conviction (possibly an attempt to evade "payment"), provided the other two elements are also met. Intentionally filing a false tax return (a separate crime in itself[14]) could constitute an attempt to evade the "assessment" of the tax, as the Internal Revenue Service bases initial assessments (i.e., the formal recordation of the tax on the books of the U.S. Treasury) on the tax amount shown on the return.

Application to tax protesters

This statute is an example of an exception to the general rule under U.S. law that "ignorance of the law or a mistake of law is no defense to criminal prosecution."[15] Under the Cheek Doctrine (Cheek v. United States[16]), the United States Supreme Court ruled that a genuine, good faith belief that one is not violating the federal tax law (such as a mistake based on a misunderstanding caused by the complexity of the tax law itself) would be a valid defense to a charge of "willfulness" ("willfulness" in this case being knowledge or awareness that one is violating the tax law itself), even though that belief is irrational or unreasonable. On the surface, this rule might appear to be of some comfort to tax protesters who assert, for example, that "wages are not income."[17] However, merely asserting that one has such a good faith belief is not determinative in court; under the American legal system the trier of fact (the jury, or the trial judge in a non-jury trial) decides whether the defendant really has the good faith belief he or she claims. With respect to willfulness, the placing of the burden of proof on the prosecution is of limited utility to a defendant that the jury simply does not believe.

A further stumbling block for tax protesters is found in the Cheek Doctrine with respect to arguments about "constitutionality." Under the Doctrine, the belief that the Sixteenth Amendment was not properly ratified and the belief that the federal income tax is otherwise unconstitutional are not treated as beliefs that one is not violating the "tax law" — i.e., these errors are not treated as being caused by the "complexity of the tax law."

In the Cheek case the Court stated:

Claims that some of the provisions of the tax code are unconstitutional are submissions of a different order. They do not arise from innocent mistakes caused by the complexity of the Internal Revenue Code. Rather, they reveal full knowledge of the provisions at issue and a studied conclusion, however wrong, that those provisions are invalid and unenforceable. Thus, in this case, Cheek paid his taxes for years, but after attending various seminars and based on his own study, he concluded that the income tax laws could not constitutionally require him to pay a tax.

The Court continued:

We do not believe that Congress contemplated that such a taxpayer, without risking criminal prosecution, could ignore the duties imposed upon him by the Internal Revenue Code and refuse to utilize the mechanisms provided by Congress to present his claims of invalidity to the courts and to abide by their decisions. There is no doubt that Cheek, from year to year, was free to pay the tax that the law purported to require, file for a refund and, if denied, present his claims of invalidity, constitutional or otherwise, to the courts. See 26 U.S.C. 7422. Also, without paying the tax, he could have challenged claims of tax deficiencies in the Tax Court, 6213, with the right to appeal to a higher court if unsuccessful. 7482(a)(1). Cheek took neither course in some years, and, when he did, was unwilling to accept the outcome. As we see it, he is in no position to claim that his good-faith belief about the validity of the Internal Revenue Code negates willfulness or provides a defense to criminal prosecution under 7201 and 7203. Of course, Cheek was free in this very case to present his claims of invalidity and have them adjudicated, but, like defendants in criminal cases in other contexts who "willfully" refuse to comply with the duties placed upon them by the law, he must take the risk of being wrong.[18]

The Court ruled that such beliefs — even if held in good faith — are not a defense to a charge of willfulness. By pointing out that arguments about constitutionality of federal income tax laws "reveal full knowledge of the provisions at issue and a studied conclusion, however wrong, that those provisions are invalid and unenforceable," the Supreme Court may have been impliedly warning that asserting such "constitutional" arguments (in open court or otherwise) might actually help the prosecutor prove willfulness.[19] Daniel B. Evans, a tax lawyer who has written about tax protester arguments, has stated that:

[ . . . ] if you plan ahead to use it [the Cheek defense], then it is almost certain to fail, because your efforts to establish your “good faith belief” are going to be used by the government as evidence that you knew that what you were doing was wrong when you did it, which is why you worked to set up a defense in advance. Planning not to file tax returns and avoid prosecution using a “good faith belief” is kind of like planning to kill someone using a claim of “self-defense.” If you’ve planned in advance, then it shouldn’t work.[20]

Failing to file returns in the United States

According to some estimates, about three percent of taxpayers do not file tax returns at all.[citation needed] In the case of U.S. federal income taxes, civil penalties for willful failure to timely file returns and willful failure to timely pay taxes are based on the amount of tax due; thus, if no tax is owed, no penalties are due.[21] The civil penalty for willful failure to timely file a return is generally equal to 5.0% of the amount of tax "required to be shown on the return per month, up to a maximum of 25%.[22] By contrast, the civil penalty for willful failure to timely pay the tax actually "shown on the return" is generally equal to 0.5% of such tax due per month, up to a maximum of 25%.[23] The two penalties are computed together in a relatively complex algorithm, and computing the actual penalties due is somewhat challenging.

In cases where a taxpayer does not have enough money to pay the entire tax bill, the IRS can work out a payment plan with taxpayers.

For years for which no return has been filed, there is no statute of limitations on civil actions—that is, on how long the IRS can seek taxpayers and demand payment of taxes owed.[24]

For each year a taxpayer willfully fails to timely file an income tax return, the taxpayer can be sentenced to one year in prison.[25] In general, there is a six-year statute of limitations on federal tax crimes.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Michael Wenzel (2002). The Impact of Outcome Orientation and Justice Concerns on Tax Compliance. Journal of Applied Psychology. pp. 4–5. "When taxpayers try to find loopholes with the intention to pay less tax, even if technically legal, their actions may be against the spirit of the law and in this sense considered noncompliant. The present research will deal with both evasion and avoidance and, based on the premise that either is unfavorable to the tax-system and uncooperative towards the collective, subsume both under the concept of tax noncompliance." 
  2. ^ (1860) 1 de G F&J 643 (England).
  3. ^ (1901) AC 196 (England).
  4. ^ Minimising Taxes, Sears, 1922, Vernon Law Book Co.
  5. ^ 240 U.S. 625, 630 (1916).
  6. ^ (1988) 62 TC 1 at 197.
  7. ^ The term "assessment" is here used in the technical sense of a statutory assessment: the formal administrative act of a duly appointed employee of the Internal Revenue Service who records the tax on the books of the United States Treasury after certain administrative prerequisites have been met. The term "assessment" has a separate, non-statutory meaning in the United States, viz. the act of the taxpayer computing the amount of the tax when preparing and filing a federal income tax return.
  8. ^ 70 TC 57.
  9. ^ See for instance CT Sandford, Hidden Costs of Taxation, IFS, 1973.
  10. ^ (1986) STC 548.
  11. ^ 27 TC 331.
  12. ^ (1968) All ER 779.
  13. ^ 26 U.S.C. § 7201.
  14. ^ 26 U.S.C. § 7206.
  15. ^ Ignorantia legis neminem excusat, or "ignorance of law excuses no one." Black's Law Dictionary, p. 673 (5th ed. 1979).
  16. ^ 498 U.S. 192 (1991).
  17. ^ The U.S. courts have consistently rejected arguments that "wages" or "labor" are not taxable as income under the Internal Revenue Code. For example, see United States v. Connor, 898 F.2d 942, 90-1 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) paragr. 50,166 (3d Cir. 1990) (tax evasion conviction under 26 U.S.C. § 7201 affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit; taxpayer’s argument — that because of the Sixteenth Amendment, wages were not taxable — was rejected by the Court; taxpayer’s argument that an income tax on wages is required to be apportioned by population also rejected); Perkins v. Commissioner, 746 F.2d 1187, 84-2 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) paragr. 9898 (6th Cir. 1984) (26 U.S.C. § 61 ruled by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to be “in full accordance with Congressional authority under the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution to impose taxes on income without apportionment among the states”; taxpayer’s argument that wages paid for labor are non-taxable was rejected by the Court, and ruled frivolous); White v. United States, 2005-1 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) paragr. 50,289 (6th Cir. 2004), cert. denied, ____ U.S. ____ (2005) (taxpayer’s argument that wages are not taxable was ruled frivolous by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit; penalty — imposed under 26 U.S.C. § 6702 for filing tax return with frivolous position — was therefore proper); Granzow v. Commissioner, 739 F.2d 265, 84-2 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) paragr. 9660 (7th Cir. 1984) (taxpayer’s argument that wages are not taxable was rejected by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and ruled frivolous); Waters v. Commissioner, 764 F.2d 1389, 85-2 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) paragr. 9512 (11th Cir. 1985) (taxpayer’s argument that income taxation of wages is unconstitutional was rejected by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit; taxpayer required to pay damages for filing frivolous suit).
  18. ^ Cheek, 498 U.S. at 205-206 (footnote omitted; emphasis added).
  19. ^ See also Spies v. United States, 317 U.S. 492 (1943); Sansone v. United States, 380 U.S. 343 (1965); Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192 (1991).
  20. ^ Daniel B. Evans, The Tax Protester FAQ; downloaded 24 April 2007
  21. ^ See 26 U.S.C. § 6651.
  22. ^ See 26 U.S.C. § 6651(a)(1).
  23. ^ See 26 U.S.C. § 6651(a)(2).
  24. ^ See 26 U.S.C. § 6501.
  25. ^ See 26 U.S.C. § 7203.
  26. ^ See 26 U.S.C. § 6531.

Further reading

  • Taxation of Non-Residents and Foreign Domiciliaries (James Kessler QC, 10th edition, 2011, Key Haven Publications) chapter 29 discusses tax avoidance in context of UK anti-avoidance provisions.

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