Nobody likes paying taxes. Even so, most people have probably never considered telling the Internal Revenue Service they can’t pay because their social security number is heretical.
Here, we collect the most creative excuses Americans have made for evading their taxes.
1. I didn’t sign up for this.
Some people simply say they’re not paying taxes because taxes are actually “voluntary.” If you ask them why, they might point to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1960 decision in Flora v. United States stating that “[o]ur system of taxation is based upon voluntary assessment and payment.”
However, the IRS addresses this and other tax evasion schemes in a report called “The Truth About Frivolous Tax Arguments.” The report says the word “voluntary” in that decision “refers to our system of allowing taxpayers initially to determine the correct amount of tax.” In other words, you do get to volunteer how much tax you think you owe instead of having the government tell you. But you don’t get to volunteer whether to pay any taxes at all.
2. The IRS isn’t a real government agency.
Yes, some people have refused to pay taxes because they say the IRS is a private corporation and not a legitimate part of the government. They argue that because the Constitution gives Congress the power to “lay and collect Taxes,” and Congress didn’t directly create the IRS, the government agency doesn’t have the authority to tax people.
Once again, the IRS disagrees and has taken people to court for trying to evade their taxes by making this argument. The IRS is under the Treasury Department, and Congress has given the Secretary of Treasury the power to enforce income tax laws. The IRS is indeed a legitimate part of the government—just ask the 30,000 employees ordered to work without pay during the 2019 government shutdown.
3. My kind of income isn’t taxable.
Another excuse people use to try to evade taxes is the 861 argument. According to this argument, section 861 of the Internal Revenue Code says most income earned in the U.S. isn’t taxable. The federal government has won multiple lawsuits against people who withhold taxes based on this theory.
The 861 argument appears to be one of the many tax evasion schemes employed by actor Wesley Snipes between 1999 and 2004. Instead of filing taxes during those years, Snipes sent the IRS a series of reasons why he wasn’t paying, including: that the IRS couldn’t tax his domestic income, that the IRS couldn’t tax people in the 50 states, that the IRS couldn’t tax people who don’t operate distilled spirits plants and that Snipes was tax-exempt because he was “non-resident alien to the United States” (Snipes was born in Florida).
But none of this held up in court when the IRS sued him. As a result, Snipes served three years in prison.
4. Texas isn’t part of the U.S.
It’s true that before the U.S. annexed Texas in 1845, it was briefly the independent Republic of Texas. But apparently, some Texans still think their state isn’t part of the Union—though it’s not really clear why.
“The Taxpayer Advocate Service, an independent watchdog arm of the IRS, said that a number of Texas residents have used this argument in order to avoid paying taxes,” reported CNN in 2012. “These residents contend that their state is separate from the rest of the nation and the IRS is unauthorized to impose taxes there.”
5. My social security number is the “mark of the beast.”
In Christianity, the Book of Revelation tells the story of how the world will end. Among other things, it says a beast will rise out of the ground and give everyone a mark on their bodies. From then on, “no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”
In popular culture, the “mark of the beast” often appears as “666.” But the Bible doesn’t actually say what this mark looks like. Could that mean the mark is actually Americans’ individual social security numbers? Does that mean Americans shouldn’t use these numbers to file taxes?
According to some Fundamentalist Christians, the answer is yes. But that argument hasn’t held up in court. In 2014, the United States District Court Northern District of Ohio ruled that Donald J. Yeager’s decision not to give his employer his social security number—which it needed to report his taxable income—was not a protected form of religious freedom.
6. Corporations are people. Therefore, I am not a person.
The idea of “corporate personhood”—that a corporation has the same constitutional rights as an individual citizen—has its roots in the 19th century. But the big legal precedent came in 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations can make unlimited political donations under the First Amendment. On the campaign trail the next year, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told a protester that “corporations are people, my friend.”
In this vein, some sneaky tax filers have tried to argue they aren’t “people” or “individuals” in the eyes of the government and therefore can’t be taxed. The Internal Revenue Code defines a “person” as an “individual, trust, estate, partnership or corporation.” These filers say that “individual” refers to companies, not humans; and therefore, they’re not a “person” who can be taxed.
This has not amused the IRS. The government agency has taken some of these non-people to court, and warns potential tax evaders against the strategy in “The Truth About Frivolous Tax Arguments.”
7. The government has a secret $630,000 account in my name.
Some Americans have forged their taxes or refused to pay them because they believe in a complex conspiracy theory that the government already has a bank account in their name. Known as “sovereign citizens,” these people argue that they’re not subject to U.S. laws or taxes because their tax bill is made out to a legal entity with a well-funded bank account that shares their name but isn’t actually them (if you’re confused, that’s because conspiracy theories don’t usually make sense).
These views can be traced to a conspiracy theory promoted by the anti-semite Roger Elvick in the 1980s. “Elvick espoused the belief that when the federal government grants a birth certificate, they create the strawman associated with the real human at the same moment—and also deposit $630,000 into the strawman’s account,” writes Brea Tremblay, whose father was a “sovereign citizen,” in the Daily Beast.
Elvick believed a “secret Jewish cabal” was behind these accounts, and he filed over $1 million in fake tax returns and sight drafts to try to withdraw the money in his secret account (and then some). He spent most of the ‘90s in prison, but his views remain popular enough that the IRS still explains and disputes his theory in “The Truth About Frivolous Tax Arguments.”