This argument asserts that wages, tips, and other compensation received for personal services are not income, because there is allegedly no taxable gain when a person “exchanges” labor for money. Under this theory, wages are not taxable income because people have basis in their labor equal to the fair market value of the wages they receive; thus, there is no gain to be taxed. A variation of this argument misconstrues section 1341, which deals with computations of tax where a taxpayer restores a substantial amount held under claim of right, to somehow allow a deduction claim for personal services rendered.
Another similar argument asserts that wages are not subject to taxation where a person has obtained funds in exchange for their time. Under this theory, wages are not taxable because the Code does not specifically tax these so-called “time reimbursement transactions.” Some take a different approach and argue that the Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution did not authorize a tax on wages and salaries, but only on gain or profit.
The Law: For federal income tax purposes, “gross income” means all income from whatever source derived and includes compensation for services. I.R.C. § 61. Any income, from whatever source, is presumed to be income under section 61, unless the taxpayer can establish that it is specifically exempted or excluded. In Reese v. United States, 24 F.3d 228, 231 (Fed. Cir. 1994), the court stated, “an abiding principle of federal tax law is that, absent an enumerated exception, gross income means all income from whatever source derived.” The IRS issued Revenue Ruling 2007-19, 2007-14 I.R.B. 843, advising taxpayers that wages and other compensation received in exchange for personal services are taxable income and warning of the consequences of making frivolous arguments to the contrary.
Section 1341 and the cases interpreting it require taxpayers to return funds previously reported as income before they can claim a deduction under claim of right. To have the right to a deduction, the taxpayer should appear to have an unrestricted right to the income in question. See Dominion Resources, Inc. v. United States, 219 F.3d 359 (4th Cir. 2000). It is a frivolous argument to claim a section 1341 deduction when there has been no repayment by the taxpayer of an amount previously reported as income. The Internal Revenue Service issued Revenue Ruling 2004-29, 2004-1 C.B. 627, warning taxpayers of the consequences of making this frivolous argument.
The Sixteenth Amendment provides that Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes on income, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration. U.S. Const. amend. XVI. Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the income tax laws enacted subsequent to ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in Brushaber v. Union Pacific R.R., 240 U.S. 1 (1916). Since that time, the courts have consistently upheld the constitutionality of the federal income tax. For a further discussion of the constitutionality of the federal income tax laws, see section I.D. of this outline.
All compensation for personal services, no matter what the form of payment, must be included in gross income. This includes salary or wages paid in cash, as well as the value of property and other economic benefits received because of services performed, or to be performed in the future. Furthermore, criminal and civil penalties have been imposed against individuals relying upon this frivolous argument.
Taxpayers who assert the position that wages are not taxable income, or other frivolous positions, may later claim that they were ignorant of or did not purposely disregard the requirements of the tax laws, such as the requirements to report wages and to withhold and pay taxes. Also, a handful of taxpayers who are criminally charged with violations of the internal revenue laws have avoided conviction.
Taxpayers should not mistake these cases for an indication that frivolous positions that lead to criminal acquittals are legitimate or that the outcome of other cases will protect a taxpayer from sanctions resulting from noncompliance. Furthermore, while a few defendants have prevailed, the vast majority are convicted. Also, even though a taxpayer may be acquitted of criminal charges of noncompliance with Federal tax laws, the Service is still free to pursue any underlying tax liability and is not barred from determining civil penalties. See Helvering v. Mitchell, 303 U.S. 391 (1938); Price v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 1996-204.