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What Happens When People Don’t Pay Their Taxes?

Posted on April 16, 2018

It’s almost the last day to file your taxes this year—for most people, they are due April 17. Some taxpayers have filed already, and some will be racing to get that last-minute postmark on their returns. Some taxpayers make mistakes on their taxes. Others don’t file on time, or at all, even though they should. Today’s WatchBlog takes a look at why some people don’t pay their taxes and what the government can do about it.

Taxes can be tricky—but some people cheat

There are many opportunities for a taxpayer to make a mistake when navigating the process of filling out a tax return. Whether taxpayers make honest errors or try to cheat by understating their taxable income, not paying what they owe, or not filing a tax return on time (or at all), these are all considered to be noncompliance.Infographic showing types of tax noncompliance

Noncompliance contributes to the annual tax gap, which is the difference between what taxpayers should have paid and what they actually paid each year. In 2016, IRS estimated an average gap of $458 billion each year from 2008 to 2010. IRS expects to eventually collect part of this through late payments and enforcement activities, but the rest—an average of $406 billion per year for those years—will never be collected.

Infographic showing amount of uncollected taxes

How does the government deal with it?

IRS tries to make it easier for taxpayers to comply with the tax laws through delivering high-quality and timely service. While IRS has struggled in recent years to answer taxpayer telephone calls and timely respond to letters, it has begun to improve its service. IRS also began matching income and other information that taxpayers report on their return against what their employers report to IRS before issuing refunds. This has helped IRS catch taxpayers’ mistakes or attempts to cheat before issuing refunds, saving about $65 million.

IRS also enforces the law by auditing taxpayers to ensure that the taxes owed are paid. Check out our blog that describes how IRS selects returns for audits.

There’s more that IRS could do to attack the tax gap on multiple fronts, such as:

Reducing the tax gap may also require targeted legislative actions, including:

For more information, check out our key issue page on enforcement of tax laws.

GAO Contacts

Chuck Young
Chuck Young
Managing Director
David A. Powner

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