Tax preparation in the United States
Tax preparation is the process of preparing tax returns, often income tax returns, often for a person other than the taxpayer, and generally for compensation. Tax preparation may be done by the taxpayer with or without the help of tax preparation software and online services. Tax preparation may also be done by a licensed professional such as an attorney, certified public accountant or enrolled agent, or by an unlicensed tax preparation business. Because United States income tax laws are considered to be complicated, many taxpayers seek outside assistance with taxes (53.5% of individual tax returns in 2016 were filed by paid preparers).
Some states have licensing requirements for anyone who prepares tax returns for a fee and some for fee-based preparation of state tax returns only. Commercial tax preparation software, such as TurboTax, is widely used by individuals preparing their own tax returns. The Free File Alliance provides free tax preparation software for individuals with less than $72,000 of adjusted gross income for tax year 2020. People who make more than $72,000 can use Free File Fillable Forms, electronic versions of U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) paper forms.
National registration of paid preparers
Until 2011, the IRS did not have a requirement for national registration of paid tax return preparers in the United States. Effective January 1, 2011, new rules required the registration of almost all paid federal tax return preparers. Many of the new rules, however, were soon struck down by a federal court.
The new rules had required that some paid preparers pass a national tax law exam and undergo continuing education requirements. Persons who are certified public accountants (CPAs), attorneys or enrolled agents were required to register, but were not required to take the exam and were not subject to the continuing education requirements.
For purposes of the registration requirement, the IRS had defined a "tax return preparer" as "an individual who, for compensation, prepares all or substantially all of a federal tax return or claim for refund." Beginning in mid-2011, tax return preparers (other than CPAs, attorneys, and enrolled agents and a few others) had generally been required to take and pass a competency test to become a registered tax return preparer.
Tax return preparers who had a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) before testing was to become available were to have until December 31, 2013, to pass the competency test. New tax return preparers would have been required to pass the competency test before they could obtain a PTIN. The IRS had indicated that the new rules would have applied to all kinds of federal tax returns, including income taxes and payroll taxes. A new continuing education requirement of 15 hours per year would have been imposed on tax return preparers (except for CPAs, attorneys, enrolled agents, and a few others).
In 2013, however, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia struck down most of these rules in the Loving case, holding that the Internal Revenue Service had no authority to require competency exams for tax preparers. The Court did indicate its decision did not affect the PTIN requirement. This requirement remains in effect.
All tax return preparers, including those tax return preparers who are attorneys, certified public accountants, or enrolled agents, are still required to have a PTIN. This rule continues to be effective for preparation of any federal tax returns after December 31, 2010.
The office of the National Taxpayer Advocate has reported that of 76,715,982 U.S. individual income tax returns (Forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ) prepared by paid return preparers that were filed for the tax year 2017, a total of 39,252,790 returns were prepared by unenrolled preparers. For that tax year, a total of 22,837,596 individual returns were prepared by CPAs, and 9,509,999 were prepared by enrolled agents. The rest were prepared by attorneys and other practitioners.
Impact of lobbying
For-profit tax preparation companies such as Intuit, the developer of TurboTax, have lobbied for at least 20 years to prevent the IRS from offering return-free filing, simpler returns, or its own free electronic filing portal. Between 2013 and 2020, Intuit and H&R Block have each spent at least $2 million annually on lobbying.
Anti-tax activist groups, including Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, have also joined in lobbying against measures which would simplify tax returns, seeing frustration with filing as fuel for voter resistance to government growth.
This lobbying resulted in the introduction of the proposed Taxpayer First Act of 2019.
The cost of preparing and filing all business and personal tax returns is estimated to be $100 to $150 billion each year. According to a 2005 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the efficiency cost of the tax system—the output that is lost over and above the tax itself—is between $240 billion and $600 billion per year. For tax return preparation, Americans spent roughly 20% of the amount collected in taxes (estimating the compliance costs and efficiency costs is difficult because neither the government nor taxpayers maintain regular accounts of these costs). Tax preparation businesses have been plagued with controversies over refund anticipation loans.
The ReadyReturn program in California, begun as a pilot in 2005 (revived in 2007 and later integrated into CalFile) sends taxpayers believed to need simple tax returns a proposed draft of a return. Taxpayers can accept or modify the draft or, if they prefer, they can ignore the draft and complete their tax return without the draft. The process is similar to receiving a credit card bill where the recipient can dispute charges they did not authorize. This system is used in countries that include Denmark, Sweden, and Spain. Intuit and the tax preparation service H&R Block have disclosed lobbying Congress against setting up a similar system for federal U.S. tax returns. Intuit spent about $3 million on lobbying in California from 2005 to 2010, where it unsuccessfully opposed the ReadyReturn program.
In 2018, TurboTax was the most popular tax preparation software in the United States, holding a 66.6% market share of self-prepared returns. H&R Block at Home (formerly TaxCut) is the second most popular with a 14% share. Other popular tax software includes: TaxACT at 7%, Tax Hawk (including FreeTaxUSA) at 5.9%, Credit Karma's free tax software (now owned by the Cash App) at 1.7%, and TaxSlayer at 1.5%.
The Free File Alliance is a group of tax preparation companies that have partnered with the Internal Revenue Service to provide free electronic tax filing services to U.S taxpayers meeting certain income guidelines. In 2019, the Free File Alliance was accused by ProPublica of serving as a bulwark against the IRS providing simpler options or return-free filing, arguing that tax companies have lobbied to instead offer Free File options where they can push users to their paid services.
- "Paid Preparer Review for National Public Liaison," Office of Program Evaluation and Risk Analysis, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Dep't of the Treasury (Sept. 2007), as cited in IRS Publication 4832, "Return Preparer Review" (Dec. 2009).
- "Proposed New Requirements for Tax Return Preparers," Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Dep't of the Treasury, at
- 2018 Annual Report to Congress, Vol. 1, p. 108, Taxpayer Advocate Service, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Dep't of the Treasury.
- "Inside TurboTax's 20-Year Fight to Stop Americans From Filing Their Taxes for Free". ProPublica. Retrieved 2021-07-09.
- "IRS Urges E-Filing — But by Vendors Only, Please". NPR.org. Retrieved 2021-07-09.
- "Filing Taxes Could Be Free and Simple. But H&R Block and Intuit Are Still Lobbying Against It". ProPublica. Retrieved 2021-07-09.
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- Tax Policy: Summary of Estimates of the Costs of the Federal Tax System by the U.S. Government Accountability Office
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- Lessig, Lawrence (2011). Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress -- and a Plan to Stop It. Twelve. p. 201. ISBN 978-0-446-57643-7.
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