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TheStreet Open House

Would You Let the IRS Do Your Taxes?

The following commentary comes from Kelly Phillips Erb through our partnership with Forbes.

"The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has." - Will Rogers

But what if it were easier? And what if the IRS made it nearly impossible to lie? What then?

Last year, IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman hinted that one way to reduce the potential for tax fraud was to have IRS prepare returns for taxpayers. That's right, you wouldn't have to prepare returns come tax time: the IRS would do it for you.

The idea is commonly referred to as a "simple return" or "ready return" (yes, it sounds like a snack you might buy at a Wawa). Under the plan, the IRS would send out tax returns that had already been completed with taxpayer identification and wage information. Taxpayers would merely review the returns for accuracy and sign at the bottom... kind of a "check the box if you agree" system. Taxpayers would have the opportunity to correct any mistakes prior to submitting the returns to the IRS.

Why not? The IRS already has a good chunk of taxpayer information on file. Add to that the obligations of employers, financial institutions and other third parties to provide wage and other income information to the IRS and there's already a nice little database at the IRS' disposal.

But putting those returns together is not cheap. Right now, the IRS simply doesn't have the manpower to prepare returns for taxpayers and pursuant enforcement and collections activities and adding to the rosters (and thus, the budget) would be a major endeavor. Shulman, however, seems to believe that it might be worth considering.

A limited version of the plan is already in place in California. The plan, called (of course), ReadyReturn, is free to taxpayers who qualify in the Golden State. The state uses information from the prior year's return along with information from the form W-2 to pre-fill a California state tax return. The return only needs to be reviewed by the taxpayer and signed. Brilliant, right? Then how come no one is signing on?

For one, the number of taxpayers who qualify is limited. To qualify, taxpayers must have filed a 2010 California resident return as single or head of household and no more than five dependents. Taxpayers must only have income from wages from a single employer and must claim the standard deduction with no credits other than the renter's credit. Depending on who you are, the program was either wildly successful or a terrible failure. The pilot program, sent out to 50,000 taxpayers, had a 27% participation rate. That works out to about 13,500 taxpayers. The state has about 2 million taxpayers, making the overall participation rate less than 1/2%. In 2009, the number of participants in the program grew to 60,000 taxpayers, or about 3%. Hardly statistically significant. But the folks who are using the system appear to like it.

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