Resistance to taxes is baked into Americans’ DNA. After all, it was cries of “taxation without representation” that spurred the American Revolution. Tax protests have continued on and off ever since, from the Whiskey Rebellion to Vietnam War-era tax resisters to the “sovereign citizen” movement.
People object to paying taxes for all kinds of reasons, from opposition to certain policies to not recognizing the government’s authority to collect taxes in the first place, but the IRS isn’t having it. No matter what you read on the internet or your weird Uncle Bob says, you can’t get out of paying taxes without suffering consequences.
“The IRS and the courts hear many outlandish arguments from people trying to avoid their legal filing and tax obligations,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in a statement. “Taxpayers should avoid unscrupulous promoters of false tax-avoidance arguments because taxpayers end up paying what they owe plus potential penalties and interest mandated by law.”
Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to legally avoid taxes. Taking all your deductions or moving money into tax-sheltered accounts like a 401(k) are perfectly acceptable ways to lower you tax bill. It’s when you get into weirder tax avoidance strategies that you run into problems.
Trying to claim that filing a tax return is optional, that you aren’t really a citizen of the U.S., or that only certain types of income are taxable will backfire. When you submit a frivolous return or slam the IRS with other off-the-wall requests the result may be a fine of $5,000 to $25,000. Plus, you could also be prosecuted for tax evasion, a felony punishable by prison time and penalties of up to $250,000.
The IRS spends a lot of time and energy debunking various convoluted anti-tax arguments, and it’s collected dozens of them in a document titled “The Truth About Frivolous Tax Arguments.” Below, we’ve highlighted 10 of the more bizarre reasons why people say they shouldn’t have to pay taxes.
1. Filing a return and paying taxes is voluntary
The first and perhaps most direct argument against the U.S. tax system is the idea that filing a return and paying taxes is voluntary. Primary points include court cases like Flora v. United States, in which the term “voluntary” is used to describe how the tax system is based on “voluntary assessment and payment, not upon distraint.”
But when the IRS says filing a return or paying taxes is “voluntary” what it really means is that a taxpayer has the right to determine his or her tax liability by completing the appropriate forms, as opposed to having the government complete the forms and determine the bill. It doesn’t mean you have the option to opt out of the system entirely.
2. The money they earned isn’t really income
According to this anti-tax argument, the money you receive for working isn’t technically income. Rather, you’re engaged in an equal exchange of your labor for fair market wages, and thus there’s no “gain” to be taxed. In this view, the government only has the right to tax gains or profit, not wages.
In reality, the IRS is allowed to tax virtually all your income, whether it’s dividend income from stocks or wages you receive from your employer. Exceptions include gifts and inheritances (though large estates may have to pay an estate tax), child support, life insurance benefits, and welfare payments.
3. Taxes are against their religion
You may not believe in paying taxes, but the IRS isn’t buying it. Though churches and other religious institutions are exempt from taxes, the same does not apply to individual taxpayers.
Allowing people to opt out of taxes on religious grounds would cripple the tax system. In the United States v. Lee, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “[t]he tax system could not function if denominations were allowed to challenge the tax system because tax payments were spent in a manner that violates their religious belief.”
4. Paying taxes violates the Fifth Amendment
Some argue that including financial information on a return may bring unlawful or illegal activity to light, thereby forcing a taxpayer to forego their Fifth Amendment protections.
The IRS calls this a “blanket assertion” of constitutional privilege. The agency asserts that there are no constitutional grounds for the refusal to file a tax return based on the Fifth Amendment. In cases like the United States v. Sullivan and the United States v. Neff, the courts back the IRS’s position.
5. Paying taxes is a form of slavery
The U.S. has prohibited involuntary servitude (except as punishment for a crime) since 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified. Since then, some anti-tax protestors have tried to equate paying taxes to slavery, arguing that having to send some of their money to the IRS is a constitutional violation. Even prominent politicians have evoked this absurd anti-tax argument. “If we tax you at 50% you are half slave, half free,” Rand Paul said in 2015. But the IRS and the courts have declared the “taxes equals slavery” claim bogus.
On the flip side, arguments that African-Americans and Native Americans can claim a tax credit as reparations for slavery and other forms of oppression are invalid. While there have been serious arguments that the U.S. should pay reparations to the descendants of former slaves, the government has not taken any such action.
6. The 16th Amendment doesn’t count
The 16th Amendment to the Constitution is short and to the point: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”
Yet some tax protestors argue the 16th Amendment is invalid because it was not properly ratified or that Ohio was not properly a state at the time it voted for the amendment. (Ohio has been a state since 1803; the amendment was ratified in 1913.) “Proponents mistakenly believe that courts have refused to address this issue,” the IRS noted. “There were enough states ratifying the Sixteenth Amendment even without Ohio to complete the number needed for ratification. Furthermore, after the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the income tax laws.”
7. Their state isn’t part of the United States
Among the goofier anti-tax arguments is the assertion that only people who live in the District of Columbia, in federal territories, or on Indian reservations or military bases have to pay federal income tax. Everyone else is supposedly a citizen of a “sovereign” state, not the U.S., which means they’re exempt from federal income tax. Not so, says the IRS.
“The Internal Revenue Code imposes a federal income tax upon all United States citizens and residents, not just those who reside in the District of Columbia, federal territories, and federal enclaves,” the IRS explained.
8. The IRS is secretly a private corporation
Some conspiracy theorists are convinced the IRS isn’t actually part of the federal government at all. Supposedly, it’s a private corporation masquerading as a government agency, and it actually has no authority to enforce the tax code. In the 2002 case Edwards v. Commissioner, the court dismissed the claim as “tax protestor gibberish.”
9. They’ve rejected their citizenship
You can’t reject your U.S. citizenship or claim to be a “free born citizen” of a particular state in order to get out of paying taxes. “Claims that individuals are not citizens of the United States but are solely citizens of a sovereign state and not subject to federal taxation have been uniformly rejected by the courts,” according to the IRS.
Even if you were to formally renounce your U.S. citizenship (which involves appearing in person at a U.S. embassy or consulate in another country), you still may not be able to escape your tax bill. “Persons who wish to renounce U.S. citizenship should be aware of the fact that renunciation of U.S. citizenship may have no effect on their U.S. tax or military service obligations,” the State Department explained.
10. They aren’t technically a person
When is a person not a person? When they’re trying to get out of paying taxes, apparently. Under what the IRS calls a “tortured misreading of the [tax] Code” some tax protestors claim they’re not really people. Yet the IRS clearly “defines ‘taxpayer’ as any person subject to any internal revenue tax and … defines ‘person’ to include an individual, trust, estate, partnership, or corporation.”
In various court cases, this argument has been declared “meritless” and “frivolous and requir[ing] no discussion.” Here’s a tip: If the government is willing to consider a corporation a person, they’re definitely going to consider a person a person.
Additional reporting done by Megan Elliott.