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Some assert that they are not required to file federal tax returns because the filing of a tax return is voluntary. Proponents point to the fact that the IRS itself tells taxpayers in the Form 1040 instruction book that the tax system is voluntary. Additionally, the Supreme Court's opinion in Flora v. United States, 362 U.S. 145, 176 (1960), is often quoted for the proposition that "our system of taxation is based upon voluntary assessment and payment, not upon distraint."
The Law: The word "voluntary," as used in Flora and in IRS publications, refers to our system of allowing taxpayers to determine the correct amount of tax and complete the appropriate returns, rather than have the government determine tax for them. The requirement to file an income tax return is not voluntary and is clearly set forth in Internal Revenue Code §§ 6011(a) , 6012(a) , et seq., and 6072(a). See also Treas. Reg. § 1.6011-1(a).
[T]he conclusion reached in the Pollock Case did not in any degree involve holding that income taxes generically and necessarily came within the class of direct taxes on property, but on the contrary recognized the fact that taxation on income was in its nature an excise entitled to be enforced as such ....
[Brushaber v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.]
[240 U.S. 1 (1916), emphasis added]
Unfortunately for Justice White, most of the language he chose to write the majority's opinion, and the resulting logic contained therein, are tortuously convoluted and almost totally unintelligible, even to college-educated English majors. In his wonderful tour de force entitled Tax Scam, author Alan Stang quips that Justice White:
... turned himself into a pretzel trying to justify the new tax without totally junking the Constitution.