Summer Reading: Tax Compliance And Small Business Taxpayers

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The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article last week, Number of Americans Caught Underpaying Some Taxes Surges 40% [$]. The main point in the story is that with the increase in the gig economy many more Americans are left on their own to pay estimated taxes. Many are not complying. The WSJ reported that from 2010 to 2015 there was an increase of about 40% in the number of people penalized for underpaying estimated taxes.

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It is easy to understand why. Without the benefit of withholding that comes with traditional paychecks and in many cases also without information reporting that can remind people that Uncle Sam is looking, there are many challenges to staying on the right side of the tax law.

A report last year from the American University Kogod Tax Policy Center called Shortchanged: Tax Compliance Challenges of Small Business Operators Driving the On-Demand Platform Economy gives the issue a deep dive.

The Kogod Report is terrific. It is well researched. It provides background on the rapid growth of this segment of the economy, with companies like Uber, Airbnb, Etsy and many others pushing Americans into the uneasy tax perch of small business owners. One of the main points in the study is that the tax code is a 20th century code poorly matched with the 21st century economy. Add to the mix a 20th century mode of tax administration and many Americans are ill-equipped to keep records and understand how the law applies to their situation. This all leads to a major tax administration headache.

What I found most interesting in the report is the survey it conducted of about 50 small business owners. While the survey is not meant to be a statistically reliable sample (and in fact may reflect a greater sophistication as all responders were in the National Association of Self Employed) it did provides some insight into many challenges this group faces:

At best, these small business owners are shortchanged when filing their taxes; at worst, they fail to file altogether. Approximately one- third of our on-demand platform operator survey respondents didn’t know whether they were required to pay quarterly-estimated payments and almost half were unaware of any available deductions, expenses or credits they could claim to offset their tax liability. These taxpayers face potential audit and penalty exposure for failure to comply with filing rules that are triggered by relatively low amounts of earned income. Compounding this problem is inconsistent reporting rule adoption that results in widespread confusion among taxpayers

I tip my cap to one of the headings in the report (They Got 1099 Problems and Withholding Ain’t One). The Report and the WSJ article tell of one of the main shortfalls in the US tax reporting system for platform players. Essentially reporting is only required if payments are made via credit card or debit card, and the aggregate number of transactions to one service provider exceeds 200 and the payments exceed $20,000. Absent exceeding both requirements then companies that process credit card payments on behalf of individuals in the gig economy are not required to issue a 1099. Of course, the absence of a 1099 does not mean that the service provider does not have to report income but the absence of reporting leads to either mistakes or intentional non reporting.

Some of the platform players in the economy, like Uber, issue a 1099 even if the service provider does not meet both the 200/20K tests (an earlier WSJ article talks about this; see The Blind Spot in a Sharing Economy: Tax Collection $).

As the report discusses, employment and income tax liabilities, with penalties, can snowball. Not surprisingly, the National Taxpayer Advocate has been on this issue; for example, her testimony last year before the House Committee on Small Business touches on these issues, and lots more, including employee classification issues. She also adds a number of proposals to increase compliance, including changing estimated tax and backup withholding rules for taxpayers with poor compliance history and an increase in IRS education efforts to get people on the right path.

Tax administrators, scholars and legislators have taken note. IRS has put up the Sharing Economy Tax Center on its web page, and there are legislative proposals to change the 200/20,000 rule to trigger mandatory reporting at lower thresholds. UC Hastings Law Professor Professor Manoj Viswanathan has a new article called Tax Compliance in a Decentralizing Economy that addresses some of these issues (I have not yet read though am looking forward to it). Our blogging colleague BC Law Prof Diane Ring at Surly Subgroup also discusses the sharing economy in a post today highlighting worker classification issues. With her BC colleague Shu-Yi Oei Diane co-authored Can Sharing Be Taxed, an article that was in Wash U Law Review last year that also looked at the sharing economy, including reviewing some of the compliance problems implicated in today’s post.

As the Kogod Center reports, it is likely that this part of the economy will grow rapidly in the next few years so one can expect a great deal more attention on the issue.

 

 

Leslie Book About Leslie Book

Professor Book is a Professor of Law at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

Comments

  1. The importance of your CPA…navigating this …

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