The Basics of Basic Tax Research

Liberty + Tax
“Liberty + Tax” by MTSOfan is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

For C.P.A.’s, accountants, and tax procrastinators of all kinds, April 15 is the anti-holiday of anti-holidays.  While the official tax “due date” was recently moved to May 17, April 15 will probably always exist as one of the more dreaded days for Americans.  In the spirit of tax day, we here at the Georgia State College of Law Library thought it would be fun, relatively speaking, to give the most basic of basic primers on tax law.  Unless you are well versed in tax law, even the lingo can be a little confusing.  So, without further ado, let us begin the non-tax person’s primer on tax law research. 

Where is it?

The tax code is officially codified in Title 26 of the United States Code, or 26 U.S.C. § 1 et. seq.  It spans from 26 U.S.C.  §§ 1-9834.  While it’s not the longest, and doesn’t contain the most words, 9834 sections is quite lengthy for a title containing only one topic.  For comparison, Title 42 – Public Health and Welfare is the longest but includes a number of sub-topics like housing, child welfare, energy, etc[1]

Citation is one point of constant confusion.  While you may cite the codification in the U.S. Code, you can also cite the Internal Revenue Code itself.  For example, 26 U.S.C. § 1 and I.R.C. § 1 cite to the same text, with the latter being favored by practitioners for brevity.

The tax code also creates and enables many Federal Regulations, Agencies (the I.R.S.), and administrative documents.  Title 26 of the Code of Federal Regulations contains most tax regulations.  Moreover, the Internal Revenue Service writes a number of advisory documents.  These non-binding writings try to offer some interpretation of the tax statutes, regulations, and administrative decisions.  While non-binding, they do offer some predictions as to what the I.R.S. might do or how they might interpret certain situations. Most are available on Westlaw, Lexis, or the I.R.S. Website. The I.R.S. website describes them this way:

“For anyone not familiar with the inner workings of tax administration, the array of I.R.S. guidance may seem, well, a little puzzling at first glance. To take a little of the mystery away, here’s a brief look at … the most common forms of guidance.

In its role in administering the tax laws enacted by the Congress, the I.R.S. must take the specifics of these laws and translate them into detailed regulations, rules and procedures. The Office of Chief Counsel fills this crucial role by producing several different kinds of documents and publications that provide guidance to taxpayers, firms and charitable groups.”

Some of the most common guidance documents are: [2]

Revenue RulingAn official interpretation by the I.R.S. of the Internal Revenue Code, related statutes, tax treaties and regulations. It is the conclusion of the I.R.S. on how the law is applied to a specific set of facts.
Revenue Procedure  An official statement of a procedure that affects the rights or duties of taxpayers or other members of the public under the Internal Revenue Code, related statutes, tax treaties and regulations and that should be a matter of public knowledge.  While a revenue ruling generally states an I.R.S. position, a revenue procedure provides return filing or other instructions concerning an I.R.S. position
Private Letter RulingA written statement issued to a taxpayer that interprets and applies tax laws to the taxpayer’s specific set of facts. A PLR is issued to establish with certainty the federal tax consequences of a particular transaction before the transaction is consummated or before the taxpayer’s return is filed.
Technical Advice MemorandumGuidance furnished by the Office of Chief Counsel upon the request of an I.R.S. director or an area director, appeals, in response to technical or procedural questions that develop during a proceeding.  Technical Advice Memoranda are issued only on closed transactions and provide the interpretation of proper application of tax laws, tax treaties, regulations, revenue rulings or other precedents. The advice rendered represents a final determination of the position of the I.R.S., but only with respect to the specific issue in the specific case in which the advice is issued. Technical Advice Memoranda are generally made public after all information has been removed that could identify the taxpayer whose circumstances triggered a specific memorandum.
NoticeA public pronouncement that may contain guidance that involves substantive interpretations of the Internal Revenue Code or other provisions of the law. For example, notices can be used to relate what regulations will say in situations where the regulations may not be published in the immediate future.
AnnouncementAn announcement is a public pronouncement that has only immediate or short-term value. For example, announcements can be used to summarize the law or regulations without making any substantive interpretation; to state what regulations will say when they are certain to be published in the immediate future; or to notify taxpayers of the existence of an approaching deadline.

Quick Federal Tax Research Tips

While navigating the seemingly endless statutes, regulations, cases, and guidance documents may seem impossible, there are sources available here at Georgia State that can help make quick sense of your tax law research question.  In particular, they allow you to do three main tasks: Research by I.R.C. citation, research by tax topic, and quickly pull I.R.S. guidance documents. 

Research by I.R.C. Citation

                This method works exactly like it sounds – If you have an I.R.C. citation, you can find associated secondary material, editorial content, and plain language explanations about the topics contained in this citation.  Historically, several sources have been organized around the I.R.C., but maybe the easiest for GSU students is United States Tax Reporter by R.I.A. in Westlaw.  If you have a citation, say I.R.C. § 1, all you have to do is open the corresponding dropdown menu, find the section, and the reporter will provide you with the text of the section, historical context, legislative history material, and editorial analysis. 

Research by Tax Topic

                If you don’t already know the I.R.C. code section dealing with your issue, you can also research by topic using the Lexis Tax Advisor.  You can search the entire publication, but the most powerful tool is the index. Not only can you find the topic you’re looking for, it will also give you some ideas for other sub-topics.  For instance, if you’re looking for information on accounting standards and look up “accounting,” you’ll see that one of the sub-topics is S Corporations.  A novice researcher may not have known that S corporations have their own unique tax accounting topics, but by using the index, they can discover these types of things. 

Retrieving Advisory Documents

Finally, the Westlaw Tax Find and Keycite page will allow you to retrieve the guidance documents listed above.  Just visit the page, select “rulings and releases,” choose the document you’re looking for, and enter the numeric part of the citation. It’s as easy as that. 

Conclusion

While tax is often seen as one of the more challenging law school classes, tax research is surprisingly accessible because of the powerful research tools made available to tax students and practitioners alike.  So long as you have a topic, I.R.C. section, or guidance document citation, you should be able to quickly and efficiently use the tools above to get started on your research.  Also, remember, if you run into difficulties, never hesitate to reach out to the librarians here at the Georgia State College of Law Library. We’re available by our individual emails, the reference email address  lawreference@gsu.edu, or by our reference chat available at http://lawlibrary.gsu.edu .


[1] https://bommaritollc.com/2013/08/19/is-the-tax-code-the-longest-title/

[2] https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/understanding-irs-guidance-a-brief-primer

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