The Time Is Now

Support local, independent reporting.

Help the city we love by joining Friends of Willamette Week.


If the IRS Already Knows How Much I Owe in Taxes, Why Do I Have to File at All?

In fact, return-free filing is great!

An American flag in Lents

If I make a mistake on my taxes, the IRS sends me a nasty letter telling me how far off I was. If they already know how much I owe, why do I have to file at all? Just send me the damned bill (or, if I’m lucky, a refund) and be done with it. —Surly Bird

I feel you, Bird. If the IRS can peer into my soul and find freelance income from 2011, why can’t its all-seeing eye of Sauron do my taxes itself?

This idea—the revenue agency does your taxes; you only file if you disagree—is known as return-free filing. Unfortunately, there are a lot of arguments against it.

You may have read some of these arguments: Return-free filing would place undue burden on non-English speakers; it would result in people of color paying higher taxes; it would eliminate tax filing assistance for the indigent. I could go on.These arguments have two things in common: (1) They were planted in the media by the tax prep industry, and (2) they’re complete horseshit.

In fact, return-free filing is great! It’s already used in Germany, Japan, the U.K. and all those other countries whose names come up whenever there’s some simple, obvious public policy solution that only the U.S. is too thick to pull off. By all accounts, the system is widely popular.

It’s less popular with tax preparation companies like Intuit, however. The maker of TurboTax spends millions lobbying politicians and running fake grassroots campaigns to make sure the United States stays in the corner eating library paste, tax-wise. Thus, we still spend an average of 13 hours and $200 sweating over questions the IRS already knows the answers to.

You might suppose that keeping taxes miserable would be a lonely fight, but as luck would have it, the little-loved tax prep industry has made friends with right-wing groups like Grover Norquist’s Americans For Tax Reform. Apparently, anti-tax zealots worry that regular Americans might be less anti-tax if taxes suddenly stopped being such a pain in the ass.But all is not lost! There is still a way to go return-free—all you have to do is not file your taxes for five or six years. Eventually, the IRS will file one for you. They won’t be very nice about it, though. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)

Questions? Send them to