For 2020, IRS Offers Spanish Speakers a “Diez Cuarenta”

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We welcome back frequent commenter and occasional guest blogger Bob Kamman with a glimpse of a new Spanish language version of Form 1040 the IRS has tested before as Bob tells us from his research into the history of the form.  He also refers to the music the IRS might add to its call line and that reminded me of a post I wrote in the second year of the blog.  Keith

The idea was rejected by IRS in 1971 and tested with little success in 1994.  But IRS has announced an “aggressive step” that for the next tax season, Form 1040 will be available in Spanish.   According to the IRS press release:

“As part of a larger effort to reach underserved communities, the Internal Revenue Service is taking a number of aggressive steps to expand information and assistance available to taxpayers in additional languages, including providing the Form 1040 in Spanish for the first time.”


Will the numerous schedules and forms that must be attached to some Ten Forty (Diez Cuarenta) returns also be available in Spanish?  How about the 1040 instructions?  IRS does not tell us.  But the press release notes:

“Other changes include Publication 1, Your Rights as a Taxpayer, is now available in 20 languages. The 2020 version of Publication 17, Your Federal Income Tax, will be available early next year in seven languages – English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Korean and Chinese (Simplified and Traditional).”

It’s accurate for IRS to claim that this is the first time for Form 1040 to have an official translation, although the Form 1040-PR is in Spanish.  (That form is used by some residents of Puerto Rico to report self-employment income and to claim the additional child tax credit.)

However, in 1994 IRS tested Spanish versions of Form 1040A in Southern California and Florida.  That “simplified” IRS form no longer exists.   The purpose was described then as “aimed at increasing tax revenue.”

An IRS spokesperson in California told the Los Angeles Times, in an article published January 28, 1994:

“Most people want to comply but they don’t know how to and can’t understand the forms.  The IRS isn’t concerned about [which language a person speaks or] legal or illegal status . . . We just want the taxes.”

A spokesperson for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) of Orange County, California, saw the Spanish forms as a way to decrease tax-preparer fraud.  “It may minimize the exploitation of the immigrant community by those who file their taxes,” he said.  The Times article reported that “it will also give immigrants, who are often accused of feeding off the public welfare system, a chance to ‘pay their fair share of taxes,’ [the MALDEF spokesperson] said.”

Two members of Congress from Orange County objected, however. Representative Ron Packard, who served from 1983 to 2001, criticized the $100,000 cost of the test, claiming the forms were a waste of money that would just make tax collection more confusing.  “Will the United States government print forms . . . for all of the thousands of different languages spoken and written by people in this country?” he asked.  “At a time when the federal government faces unprecedented fiscal constraints, this does not represent a prudent use of taxpayer funds.” 

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Representative Dana Rohrabacher, who retired in 2019 after 20 years,  said the Congressman  believed   all government business should be conducted in English and all forms should be printed in English.

What conclusions did IRS draw from the 1994 trial of Spanish tax returns?  A July 27, 1994 article in the South Florida (Fort Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel reported that the program cost taxpayers about $157 per completed return:

“The IRS printed about 500,000 Spanish-language 1040A forms and distributed them in districts in South Florida and the Los Angeles area.  The translation, printing and distribution of the forms cost about $113,000.  As of the middle of May, a total of 718 Americans had filed their tax returns on the forms, called 1040A Espanol, the IRS said.”

Well, at least they tried.  In 1971, Representative Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas, ten years into his 38-year career in Congress, asked IRS to provide a Spanish translation of Form 1040.  IRS wrote him back that “practical difficulties” prevented this.  James N. Kinsel, described as “IRS tax forms chairman,” wrote that “one of these difficulties is the number of different languages which might have to be given this treatment.  Another difficulty stems from our processing and audit activities, and the possible need to employ large numbers of bilingual technicians.” 

Instead, Rep. Gonzalez was told that IRS puts Spanish-speaking workers in income tax assistance offices in areas of the country with high Mexican-American population, and was working on a Spanish-language pamphlet concerning income tax.

Of course, in the Internet era, most of the printing and distribution costs of translated forms are gone.  But as IRS becomes increasingly dependent on private enterprise, will software providers like TurboTax and the coalition that sponsors Free File make it easier for taxpayers to prepare returns in a language other than English?  And how many states will translate their income tax forms and instructions?

Optimistically, IRS tells us that it will allow taxpayers to indicate their choice of language when IRS contacts them.  As the press release notes:

“In addition to being available in English and Spanish, the 2020 Form 1040 will also give taxpayers the opportunity to indicate whether they wish to be contacted in a language other than English. This is a new feature available for the first time this coming filing season.”

It might be more useful if taxpayers were given a choice of music for listening on hold.  Mariachi, Salsa or K-pop?

By the way, the Taxpayer Advocate is called the “Defensor” in Spanish, which translates to “Defender.”  This may remind some of the 1961-65 television series starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed, and others of the recent Netflix series starring the Marvel Comics heroes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist.


  1. Kenneth H. Ryesky says

    Availing Form 1040 in the Spanish language would indeed help to prevent predatory practices against Spanish-speakers whose English is substandard, and would indeed make tax compliance easier.

    That said, the translation process can distort the meaning of the original speaker (or writer). What happens if the translation process to Spanish produces an ambiguity? When it comes to diverse translations of a statute, the version in the language used by the body that enacted the statute must prevail [See St. Martin Parish Police Jury v. Iberville Parish Police Jury, 212 La. 886, 902 – 903, 33 So. 2d 671, 677 (La. 1947).].

    The same principle would apply to ambiguities in translated IRS forms (though a taxpayer’s advocate (miniscule “a,” not to be confused with Erin Collins), may well that the new “Diez Cuarenta” form is no less a creation of the IRS than the familiar English Form 1040, and that the IRS accordingly must honor any ambiguities of its own creation).

    It would not be surprising if the issue comes up in a future dispute.

    • Robert Kantowitz says

      I had the same thought, and wanted to amplify it.

      1. If an individual can understand enough English to read and follow the instructions in English, it is likely that that individual does not need a form itself in another language. So the real question is whether the IRS will publish the instructions in other languages such as Spanish.

      2. More expense: review to make sure that the Spanish instructions are idiomatic and also consistent with the English instructions, not always an easy task.

      3. What happens if there is a deviation? Whoever used the less-taxpayer-favorable version will complain. Or people will discover the deviation and intentionally exploit it even if it is in the form that they would not naturally use. Or the IRS will try to tell everyone not to – a PR disaster. Only time will tell.

      4. Where does a form or its instructions rank in the hierarchy of authority that the government can enforce or on which a taxpayer can rely?

      5. Just wait for the lawsuits to start from other language groups.

      6. A cogent argument can be made that the problem is less whether anyone can read and understand English than it is that the calculation in some respects is so convoluted and the conditions and worksheets are so complicated, that the instructions are inscrutable even when expressed in perfectly grammatical sentences.

  2. Lavar Taylor says

    Speaking of ambiguities caused by translation, Shouldn’t it be “mil cuarenta” ?

    • Only for those who call it “Form One Thousand Forty.”
      The comments pointing out the variety of Spanish dialects are insightful. I could tell many stories about communication during my travels around more than a dozen Latin American countries, or how chickens in northern Mexico and the adjoining American states lay “little white ones.” Spanish speakers in the United States are as varied in their language as what journalists like to call “the Hispanic vote” is in its politics. But since the forms and instructions even in English are not reliable evidence in court, let’s give IRS credit for trying. Maybe we should ask, though, why they are closing the Fresno and Austin service centers while dealing with diversity.

  3. The fact that the 1040 was not available in any other language was always the jaw dropping punch line in my language access presentations. No more. Good job IRS!

  4. What are they thinking? The spanish they use is not the spanish the people in this country use and last time they just brought the forms in and asked us to read it. Taxpayers use everyday spanish not the “correct spanish”.

    • Marilyn Ratliff brings up an interesting point.

      The standard American English used in the English IRS forms is not written in the every day vernacular of English speaking Americans. There are several different American English dialects that vary by region, ethnicity, etc. The speakers of these American English dialects can all code switch into standard American English for the most part.

      Spanish speaking Americans trace their origins to several different countries in the Spanish speaking world and each country has its own dialect. (Some countries may have multiple dialects.) We also have Spanglish which is a language in its own right. I couldn’t tell you if these Spanish speakers can code switch into the “standard Spanish” used on the forms. The language should be effective if most Spanish speakers in the USA can understand the forms.

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