Choosing Tax: Explicit Elections as an Element of Design in the Federal Income Tax System
Heather M. Field
University of California Hastings College of the Law
February 17, 2010
Harvard Journal on Legislation, Vol. 47, p. 21, 2010
Taxpayer choice pervades the federal income tax system. This choice can be made either implicitly, whereby the taxpayer arranges his economic and/or legal affairs so as to qualify for his desired tax treatment, or explicitly, whereby the taxpayer merely tells the Internal Revenue Service how he wishes to be treated for tax purposes, without having to take any specific non-tax actions or structure his financial or legal dealings in any particular way. Scholars often focus on implicit taxpayer choice and seek to hinder that type of tax planning. However, explicit taxpayer choice garners little scholarly attention. This hole in the literature is surprising given that explicit taxpayer choices, in the form of tax elections, generally reflect pure tax-planning opportunities that are affirmatively granted to taxpayers by Congress and the Treasury Department and given that tax elections continue to be added to the Internal Revenue Code. To help fill this gap, this Article provides a framework for understanding how explicit tax elections are and should be used in the federal income tax system. Specifically, by drawing on a wide variety of tax elections, this Article discusses problems that may be caused by the use of explicit tax elections, identifies and assesses four major functions served by explicit tax elections, and derives a few generally applicable recommendations about how to design explicit tax elections so as to maximize their efficacy and minimize criticisms of their use. Despite the many compelling criticisms of the availability of explicitly provided taxpayer choices, this Article argues that carefully conceived explicit elections can be valuable tools in the design and administration of the tax system. Moreover, by isolating and analyzing situations where Congress and the Treasury affirmatively turn over to the taxpayers the right to determine their own tax consequences, this study of explicit elections can provide insight into the broader balance of power between taxpayers and the government. And, at the very least, this Article brings scholarly attention to the under-studied role of explicit elections in the tax system.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 54
Keywords: tax law, tax election, tax choice, explicit election, federal income taxation, tax legislation
JEL Classification: K34, H2
Date posted: February 20, 2010
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