Simply Apoplectic

We can all be grateful, we suppose, that some-where along the line Congress had the decency to quietly drop the word simplification from the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Had it not done so, it's likely that millions of taxpayers and professional tax preparers who are now starting to look into the new law as it applies to 1987 income would find themselves rolling on the floor in uncontrollable laughter. Either that or the nation's health-care services would be forced to cope with an epidemic of apoplexy. For the consensus of tax professionals is that the new Form 1040 and the regulations that stand behind it, far from being simplified, are in fact stupefyingly difficult. In the words of one tax-course teacher, "It's the most confusing thing I've ever seen."

Don't blame the Internal Revenue Service. It only enforces the law that Congress writes. The reformed tax code, as it finally emerged, turned out to be considerably longer than the canon that it replaced, and for a lot of taxpayers it will prove to be considerably more complex to apply. This doesn't mean that when all the numbers have been crunched and the bottom line stands revealed the new code won't prove beneficial--i.e., money-saving--for many Americans. But pretty clearly getting there won't be half the fun. It's a safe bet that whoever said that it's the journey and not the destination that counts wasn't thinking of Form 1040.

One consequence is that a lot more people will probably have to turn to the services of tax preparers. This raises at least three problems. First, some professionals are warning that the extra time needed to do many returns means that they can't take on new clients. Second, the added time means that the cost of tax preparation will go up. Third, that cost is no longer a tax-deductible expense. Only when tax-preparation charges and other miscellaneous expenses exceed 2% of adjusted gross income can any tax savings occur.

The IRS, recognizing what Congress hath wrought, is this year adding 1,000 taxpayer service personnel to answer questions, 900 more toll-free telephone lines and 2,000 volunteers to give advice at schools, churches and IRS offices. That should help. What would help most of all, of course, is a tax law that was indeed simplified. Washington accountant David Berenson has this suggestion: Before any new tax code is adopted, every member of Congress should be forced to sit down and prove that he can fill out a tax return himself. We like that proposal. Congress, on its part, would probably respond with uncontrollable laughter.

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