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Tax noncompliance is a range of activities that are unfavorable to a state's tax system. This may include tax avoidance, which is tax reduction by legal means, and tax evasion which is the criminal non-payment of tax liabilities. The use of the term 'noncompliance' to refer to tax avoidance, however, is not universal or standard, and similar terms are also used differently by different authors. For example, in the United States the use of the term 'noncompliance' often refers only to illegal misreporting. Laws known as a General Anti-Avoidance Rule (GAAR) statutes which prohibit "tax aggressive" avoidance have been passed in several developed countries including the United States (since 2010), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Norway and Hong Kong. In addition, judicial doctrines have accomplished the similar purpose, notably in the United States through the "business purpose" and "economic substance" doctrines established in Gregory v. Helvering. Though the specifics may vary according to jurisdiction, these rules invalidate tax avoidance which is technically legal but not for a business purpose or in violation of the spirit of the tax code. Related terms for tax avoidance include tax planning and tax sheltering.
Individuals that do not comply with tax payment include tax protesters and tax resisters. Tax protesters attempt to evade the payment of taxes using alternative interpretations of the tax law, while tax resisters refuse to pay a tax for conscientious reasons. Tax protesters believe that taxation under the Federal Reserve is unconstitutional, while tax resisters are more concerned with not paying for particular government policies that they oppose. Because taxation is often perceived as onerous, governments have struggled with tax noncompliance since the earliest of times.
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.
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. In 1900 the distinction was noted as two meanings of the word “evade”: Bullivant v AG. The technical use of the words avoidance/evasion in the modern sense originated in the USA where it was well established by the 1920s. It can be traced to Oliver Wendell Holmes in Bullen v. Wisconsin.
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) 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. The use of the terminology avoidance/mitigation to express this distinction was an innovation in 1986: IRC v Challenge.
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, where the House of Lords held that Parliament had “missed fire”.
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, 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."
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:
Under this statute and related case law, the prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, each of the following three elements:
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) 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.
The federal tax evasion 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." Under the Cheek Doctrine (Cheek v. United States), 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."
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:
The Court continued:
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. Daniel B. Evans, a tax lawyer who has written about tax protester arguments, has stated that:
Nevertheless, the honesty of a taxpayer in expressing his beliefs can be a mitigating factor in sentencing. In R. v. Klundert, 2011 ONCA 646, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a tax protestor's conviction, but allowed him to serve a conditional sentence in the community on the grounds that his behaviour was neither fraudulent nor deceitful. The one-year custodial sentence imposed by the trial judge was overturned on this basis:
According to some estimates, about three percent of taxpayers do not file tax returns at all. 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. 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%.
By contrast, the civil penalty for willful failure to timely pay the tax actually "shown on the return" is generally equal to 20.5% of such tax due per month, up to a maximum of 25%. 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, or enter into a collection alternative such as a partial payment installment agreement, an Offer in Compromise, placement into hardship or "currently non-collectable" status or file bankruptcy.
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.
For each year a taxpayer willfully fails to timely file an income tax return, the taxpayer can be sentenced to one year in prison. In general, there is a six-year statute of limitations on federal tax crimes.
The IRS has run several Overseas Voluntary Disclosure Programs in 2009 and 2011, and its current one has "no set deadline for taxpayers to apply. However, the terms of this program could change at any time going forward.".
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