Tax Gap:

A Strategy for Reducing the Gap Should Include Options for Addressing Sole Proprietor Noncompliance

GAO-07-1014: Published: Jul 13, 2007. Publicly Released: Aug 13, 2007.

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The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) estimates that $68 billion of the annual $345 billion gross tax gap for 2001 was due to sole proprietors, who own unincorporated businesses by themselves, underreporting their net income by 57 percent. A key reason for this underreporting is well known. Unlike wage and some investment income, sole proprietors' income is not subject to withholding and only a portion is subject to information reporting to IRS by third parties. GAO was asked to (1) describe the nature and extent of sole proprietor noncompliance, (2) how IRS's enforcement programs address it, and (3) options for reducing it. GAO analyzed IRS's recent random sample study of reporting compliance by individual taxpayers, including sole proprietors.

Based on what IRS examiners could find, most sole proprietors, at least an estimated 61 percent, underreported net business income, but a small proportion of them accounted for the bulk of understated taxes. Both gross income and expenses were misreported. Most of the resulting understated taxes were in relatively small amounts. Half the understatements that IRS examiners could find were less than $903. However, 10 percent of the tax understatements, made by over 1 million sole proprietors, were above $6,200. In this top group, the mean understatement of tax was $18,000. IRS's two main sole proprietor enforcement programs--the Automated Underreporter Program, which computer matches information on a tax return with information submitted to IRS by third parties, and examinations (audits)--have limited reach. The two programs each annually contact less than 3 percent of estimated noncompliant sole proprietors. The limited reach exists for a variety of reasons. In 2001, about 25 percent of sole proprietor gross income was reported on information returns by third parties; expenses generally are not subject to such reporting. Even when required, various barriers make information reporting inconvenient. Examinations of sole proprietors yield less in additional tax assessed and cost more to conduct than examinations for other taxpayers. However, because of the extent of sole proprietor noncompliance, any effect that examinations have on voluntary compliance by other sole proprietors could result in significant revenue. The Treasury Department's recently released tax gap strategy discusses neither sole proprietor noncompliance specifically nor the many options that could address it. GAO has reported on the need for such a detailed strategy for years. Specific options that address issues including sole proprietor recordkeeping, underreporting of gross income, overreporting of expenses, information reporting, and IRS's enforcement programs are listed in appendix II.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of the Treasury's written comments stated that "...the seven elements of the Treasury Department's strategy are intended to apply broadly to all types of business and individual taxpayers, including sole proprietorships. As we continue to consider application of the strategy to the most significant elements of the tax gap, your report will provide valuable insight." The Treasury Department issued its tax gap strategy report in August 2007. The report did not discuss a specific strategy for sole proprietors. As of July 2011, the Treasury Department had not taken action to implement this recommendation. There is no expectation that this will happen unless the the department changes its approach to the tax gap.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Treasury should ensure that the tax gap strategy includes (1) a segment on improving sole proprietor compliance that is coordinated with broader tax gap reduction efforts and (2) specific proposals, such as the options we identified, that constitute an integrated package.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury


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