1:28am

Fri April 12, 2013
Planet Money

The Tax Code, Translated Into Plain English

Originally published on Fri April 12, 2013 8:55 am

The tax code is full of complicated loopholes and deductions that require professional translation. So I called a bunch of accountants and tax lawyers and asked them: What are your favorite, most confusingly named deductions — and what do they actually mean?

Intangible Drilling Costs

"The government will pay you to dig a hole in the ground," says Howard Rosen, a CPA in St. Louis. "You can write it all off immediately."

This is for oil and gas companies, and for farmers who need to dig wells. But a question a lot of CPAs raised: What's intangible about a well? "It's like if you think about drilling in your head, do you get a deduction?" Greg Kyte, an accountant in Utah told me.

(Note to last-minute filers: Just to be clear, you do not get a deduction for just thinking about digging a hole in the ground.)

The Medical Deduction

Confusingly, this one is confusing because it sounds so simple. It sounds like you can deduct medical expenses. In fact, you can only deduct medical expenses that are more than 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income.

"It should really be called the 'if only the you could get the medical deduction, medical deduction,' " Shayna Chapman, a CPA in Ohio, told me. "I mean, unless you're really sick or old, don't bother trying."

'Convenience Of The Employer' Exclusion

This is a part of the tax code that says if your employer provides basics like free food (common at many Silicon Valley startups) or a bed to sleep in (if you work on a ship), it's not considered compensation. So you don't have to pay taxes on it.

There are lots of details in the tax code that talk about fringe benefits, and what does and doesn't count as part of your income. You don't have to pay taxes on the free coffee you get at the office because it's considered a "de minimis fringe."

"It comes from the Latin phrase de minimis non curat lex," Mary Hevener, a D.C. tax attorney, told me. "The Latin phrase translated literally is, 'The law does not concern itself with trifles.' But translated into real English, it's, 'Don't sweat the small stuff.' "

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's return to this country, where it's time to pay taxes. The tax code is full of complicated loopholes and deductions that really require professional translation.

Chana Joffe-Walt, with our Planet Money Team, has been wondering: What if we just gave all those deductions and credits simple, straightforward names?

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: This turns out to be something CPAs actually already do when they get together. They joke about their favorite, most terribly named deductions, exclusions, credits.

MARY HEVENER: Don't get me started.

(LAUGHTER)

HEVENER: 'Cause in my view, they don't have names that anybody would understand .

JOFFE-WALT: Mary Hevener, a tax lawyer in Washington, D.C. says code section 132 for example - is full of stuff like...

HEVENER: The convenience of employer exclusion. What the hell does that mean?

JOFFE-WALT: What does convenience of employer exclusion mean?

HEVENER: Food and lodging.

JOFFE-WALT: This is a part of the tax code says, if you work in a place - say Silicon Valley or on a ship and they give you food or a bed for free, that's not considered compensation, it's not considered part of your salary, something you'd have to pay taxes on.

In fact, a lot of the more obscure things in this section are things your employer is giving you as a fringe benefit, not counting it as part of your salary. Like, for example, if you get you free coffee from the machine at the office or you get the free use of free pens. You'd have to pay taxes on that - if it wasn't excluded in the U.S. tax code by this confusing term...

HEVENER: It's a de minimis fringe.

JOFFE-WALT: De minimis fringe?

HEVENER: You heard it.

It comes from the Latin phrase, de minimis non curat lex. The Latin phrase translated literally is, the law does not concern itself with trifles.

(LAUGHTER)

HEVENER: But translated into real English, it's don't sweat the small stuff.

JOFFE-WALT: I surveyed half a dozen CPAs. The clear favorite for most obscurely named deduction...

HOWARD ROSEN: Intangible drilling cost.

JOFFE-WALT: This is Howard Rosen, a CPA in St Louis. Intangible drilling cost is a deduction for businesses.

ROSEN: The government will pay you to dig a hole in the ground. You can write it all off immediately.

JOFFE-WALT: This is meant for oil and gas companies, farmers who need to dig wells. Fine. But the question the CPAs raised - why intangible?

Here's Greg Kyte, a CPA in Utah.

GREG KYTE: Intangible drilling. It's like if you think about digging a hole you get a deduction?

JOFFE-WALT: Howard Rosen says it'd be easy to rename this one.

ROSEN: I like drilling holes in the ground.

JOFFE-WALT: Several CPAs told me even deductions with simple sounding names can create confusion.

Shayna Chapman, a CPA in Ohio, told every year clients bring her envelopes full of medical paperwork. They bring her bills, co-pays, pharmacy receipts - because they see there's something called the Medical Deduction.

SHAYNA CHAPMAN: It should really just be called: If only you could get the medical deduction, medical deduction. I mean unless you're really sick or old, don't bother trying deduction.

JOFFE-WALT: You have to have spent more than 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income to qualify.

And someone put that in there for some reason. All these deductions and credits exist to benefit some group of people, some industry, or to encourage certain behavior.

So the CPAs like to imagine a world where the intention is simply announced in the title. You know, in that world we wouldn't have the Child Tax Credit. It'd be...

KYTE: Have more kids. More kids, more credit.

JOFFE-WALT: Right, the have-more-children tax credit?

KYTE: It's the, I want a larger labor pool when I retire tax credit.

JOFFE-WALT: Or the mortgage interest tax deduction.

Shayna Chapman says that's clearly there to encourage people to buy homes. So why not just say that?

CHAPMAN: It's more like, we want you to spur the economy by buying a house deduction.

JOFFE-WALT: The thing is, Greg Kyte, the CPA in Utah, he had a different read on what this one should be called.

KYTE: Help create the next housing bubble deduction.

JOFFE-WALT: This, of course, is the thing about a lot of these deductions and credits. What seems like a good idea to one of set of people, seems like a bad idea to another.

So instead of simple names and titles - that would step right into that conflict - we have - well, we have the U.S. tax code.

Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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