It’s tax time in the U.S., which means Americans and residents are hurriedly poring over paperwork, filling in forms and hoping to file by the April 15 deadline.
While for many it may be routine, for others it’s a significant source of stress. A friend recently told me taxes were “driving her crazy” because she was worried about the ramifications of making a mistake.
One way to reduce a stressful situation is to think about the worst case scenarios – and just how unlikely they are to transpire. So to calm her down, I pointed out a few facts about what could happen if you do something wrong on your taxes and then regaled her with the only story I could find of the tax man actually driving someone crazy.
It made her a lot calmer, so if you are stressing about taxes these facts might help you too.
1. Jail time
We may as well start with the absolute worst case scenario if there’s a problem with your taxes: You could go to jail.
This is highly unlikely, however. The most recent year of data is from 2016, when just 927 people received jail sentences for tax crimes. The crimes were things like selling fake tax software, embezzling large sums of money, being an unscrupulous tax return preparer, and challenging the legality of taxes and refusing to file.
The IRS also put another 1,200 people in jail for other severe crimes like identity theft, money laundering or not reporting money earned from drug trafficking. The IRS is very clear in its instructions: “Income from illegal activities, such as money from dealing illegal drugs, must be included in your income on Schedule 1.”
Put simply, no one goes to jail for making an innocent mistake when filing out their tax forms.
2. The dreaded audit
The second-worst thing that could happen is getting audited. This is also a low probability event.
Ordinary people are more likely to die or be seriously injured in a car accident than get dragged into the IRS offices for an audit.
If you want the exact figures, in calendar year 2016 individuals filed 150 million tax returns. The IRS examined just 0.6 percent of them.
Moreover, 77 percent of these tax examinations were done by sending letters back and forth. That means less than 0.2 percent of all filers had to go into the IRS to have their taxes examined.
Your odds of being audited increase if you are very rich or self-employed with lots of revenue, but most people in these categories pay tax lawyers to worry for them.
3. Mathematical mayhem
Lots of people make minor math errors when they file their taxes. But if you do, you shouldn’t sweat it.
The IRS even tracks the number of math mistakes.
The IRS reported that 2.5 million returns for 2017 had these kinds of errors. About half a million were so small, however, that the agency didn’t even notify the filers about it.
And the likelihood that you’ll make a math mistake has declined in recent years at the same time that the IRS has promoted typically free web-based software that crunches the numbers for you. In 2002, for example, the IRS sent out 13.3 million math error letters.
I actually got one a few years ago when I was still doing my taxes with a hand calculator and a pencil. The IRS simply informed me that I had made a math error, which lowered my expected tax refund by a few hundred dollars. It also gave me the option to protest.
I was very irritated and briefly considered protesting. But after going over my taxes again, I realized, sure enough, I did mess up. By the next morning I was over my anger, primarily at myself, and went on with my life.
4. Pay up
Of course, you could end up owing the IRS a lot of money.
But like going to jail or getting audited, the fear of this is greatly overstated because the vast majority of people in the U.S. either get a refund or don’t owe the federal government any money – more than 80 percent of filers in 2016.
The average refund this year is around $3,000 – little changed from last year before the 2017 tax law took effect.
Who’s afraid of the tax man?
Hopefully, if tax season is stressing you out, the above facts help you feel a bit better. If they don’t, maybe it will help to know I could only find a single example of someone going crazy over taxes – and it happened long ago during a special period in American history.
In the late 1700s, just before the Revolutionary War, people in the 13 colonies were passionately debating if they should break away from Great Britain. Massachusetts, one of the hotspots of revolutionary activity, was home to a famous lawyer named James Otis.
He was originally King George III’s official legal representative in Boston before resigning and joining the revolution’s leadership. Otis is the Patriot who coined the famous slogan “taxation without representation is tyranny.”
His well-publicized views about taxes earned him enemies, including British tax collector John Robinson, who confronted Otis in a local Boston coffee shop. In the ensuing fight, Robinson beat Otis so badly that the Patriot suffered severe head injuries that drove him insane.
Fortunately, dealing with the tax authorities today is much safer – even in Florida, where collectors were recently discouraged by the state attorney general from carrying guns on the job.
In other words, there’s little reason to sweat tax time. There is little chance of going to jail, being audited or owing a huge amount of money. There is almost no chance you will be beaten up by the tax collector, as Otis was. The most likely result is you will receive a refund like most people.
So if you’re one of the millions of people who put off filing their taxes to the last minute, why delay?
About The Author
Jay L. Zagorsky, Senior lecturer, Boston University