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By Brad Tuttle
February 23, 2017

Some normally law-abiding Americans are expected to face hefty fines and even the possibility of criminal prosecution and jail time when they refuse to pay federal taxes this spring.

The actress Mia Farrow and activist Gloria Steinem are among the protestors pledging to withhold tax payments as a way to voice opposition to President Donald Trump. They say they won’t pay as a form of civil disobedience because Trump lost the popular vote and they think his election victory should be considered illegitimate; because they want Trump to release his tax returns as promised; because they don’t want their federal income tax money used to build Trump’s border wall; and/or because they are opposed to other Trump policies on immigration, health care, human rights, and so on.

Yet protestors have been refusing to pay federal income taxes long before Donald Trump took over in the White House. A MarketWatch story published this week highlighted the story of Ed Hedemann, the founder of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, a group that spreads information and helps organize tax boycotts among those who don’t want their tax payments to fund wars. Hedemann says he hasn’t paid federal taxes since 1970—although he’s spent plenty of the intervening time hopping from job to job, waging court battles, and taking other steps to keep the IRS away from his money.

He hasn’t simply been pocketing the funds, however. Instead, Hedemann says that over the years he’s donated the roughly $85,000 that would have normally gone to federal taxes to Planned Parenthood, refugee assistance programs, and various other nonprofits.

The IRS is well acquainted with the multitude of reasons people give for refusing to pay federal taxes. In addition to withholding taxes as a form of protest, people have tried to make the case that they don’t have to pay because—supposedly—taxes are voluntary, taxes constitute theft by the government, or taxation is slavery, among other reasons. But in all of these cases and more, the IRS has flatly declared the arguments to be “frivolous”—and the courts have almost always backed it up.

One common argument used by tax protestors is that you can invoke the First Amendment and refuse to pay taxes due to religious or moral beliefs—an opposition to war, for example, or to policies you deem as discriminatory against immigrants. But the IRS says plainly that the First Amendment “does not provide a right to refuse to pay income taxes on religious or moral grounds or because taxes are used to fund government programs opposed by the taxpayer.”

What happens then if, for whatever reason, you don’t pay federal income taxes? Famous tax dodgers like Wesley Snipes have gone to jail for not paying their taxes, but such cases are rare. More likely, tax protestors face a range of stiff civil penalties, including fines and interest on the money owed. If you owe back taxes, the IRS also has the authority to simply garnish wages directly out of your paycheck.

In other words, you can expect an onslaught of paperwork, hassles, and fines if you refuse to pay your taxes. That goes regardless of whether you’re refusing based on some lofty principle or just because you’d rather keep the money.

“Judges have little tolerance for tax protestors,” a post from the nonprofit Tax Foundation explained, with court cases almost always coming down in the IRS’s favor. What’s more, “While the IRS may be less sinister than it was a few years ago, there’s no doubting their willingness to use enormous power against individuals to collect tax revenue.”

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