Tax Code Too Complicated for Many Filers

April 15, 2003 -- As he waited for an H&R Block representative to finish his taxes, Frank diCicco spoke for a lot of Americans.

"I figured it was probably better to come in and do it here than end up in jail or something," he said.

Indeed, for most Americans, the preparation of their income taxes cannot be done alone. And that's something that drives David Keating of the National Taxpayers Union nuts.

"Certainly," he said, "there's no one person that understands the tax code. It's too big. It's too complicated."

And complicated it is.

George Hausman has been preparing tax forms for five years, working on some 1,500 returns. He's come to an inescapable conclusion: "I don't think people really understand the process of taxes and refunds."

Long Instructions for Short Form

Just think — 67 years ago, the instructions on filing income taxes ran two pages long. The Internal Revenue Service used to air commercials extolling the simplicity of the entire procedure.

"Forms are as simple as careful thought and planning can make them," said one ad.

Almost laughable, isn't it?

The Taxpayers Union says now it takes 85 pages of instructions to explain what the IRS likes to call the short form, the 1040A. The problem is, that's one page more than it took to explain the long form, the 1040, just seven years ago.

We visited a tax-preparation office today — the deadline for taxes to be filed — and the comments were all in the same vein.

"It's the number of pages and just there's a lot of reading," lamented Kelley Cortes.

"New tax rules. New rules, new regulations," added another customer, Millie Schifano. "Itemizing, I knew nothing about itemizing."

We can all blame the Congress for the complex mess. They're very good at passing tax relief, but have often attached numerous conditions before you can get them.

"Whether the average congressman knew it is another question," said Keating of the Taxpayers Union. "They don't seem to know much about what they're voting on often."

The Dreaded Alternative Minimum Tax

And are you ready for this? Keating said it's going to get much, much worse.

Ever heard of the alternative minimum tax? It was designed by Congress in 1963 specifically for 155 rich individuals who were availing themselves of so many deductions and loopholes that they had been paying no tax at all. The AMT is supposed to make everyone pay at least some tax, regardless of the breaks to which they are entitled.

The problem is that Congress never indexed the law to inflation. So now, simply upper-middle-class couples are considered "rich" by this statute and are thus subject to paying this tax.

And it's a whole different tax form, with some 57 lines of questions to answer. Not only that, but some 35 million Americans will probably qualify to pay this tax by 2010.

"The sharp increase in the level of complexity that's going to happen in the next few yearsdwarfs anything we've seen in the past," said Keating.

But he has a simple solution.

"I think they should wipe the slate clean and start over," he said, adding that he thinks the chances of that happening are "unlikely."