“The IRS has a huge collection process that lasts for years and at every stage of that collection process, the war tax resister has a choice about what to do. So that’s why I believe that it’s really a one step at a time kind of thing, and that imagining the worst possible consequences before you even begin the process is paralyzing. And it doesn’t let your conscience struggle with doubts one by one.”
— Bill Ramsey, from Death & Taxes
Possible Risks Associated with War Tax Resistance
Taking direct action for peace often means taking risks. War tax resistance is no exception.
This page will introduce you to the possible risks of different methods of war tax resistance, and to the ways NWTRCC can help you reduce those risks.
Remember that if at any time you have questions about risks and how to prepare for them, you can talk to a war tax resistance counselor in your area or call the War Tax Resistance Hotline.
Of course there are also terrible risks involved with not doing war tax resistance. If you continue to pay war taxes, you contribute to global insecurity, nuclear terrorism, and imperialism, you put innocent people in harm’s way, and you risk the moral injury of knowing that you are complicit in such things.
And in addition to the risks, or possible negative consequences, there are also many positive consequences of war tax resistance.
- Resisters often redirect their resisted taxes or their untaxed time to meet human needs and thereby improve the world around them.
- Forthright direct action of this sort may motivate others to act, or may provide new opportunities to communicate your beliefs to others.
- By taking a stand, you may develop new feelings of empowerment, liberation, and personal integrity that will more than compensate for the risks you take.
Inflated Perceptions of the Risk of Refusing to Pay Taxes
The IRS sometimes gets a fearsome reputation, but in fact it is often a paper tiger. Keep in mind that there is a difference between what they can do and what they will do. Their bark is often much worse than their bite.
People who are first considering war tax resistance often have the mistaken impression that people who refuse to pay their taxes from motives of conscience are at great risk of going to jail or having their homes taken away from them. In fact these risks are so rare that the list of war tax resistance cases since World War Ⅱ is a short one. Here, for example is a list of war tax resisters taken to court or jailed for their resistance, and a list of property seizures and attempted property seizures against war tax resisters. The lists taken together represent fewer than a hundred people, or a fraction of one percent of the people who have practiced war tax resistance over those years.
It is also true that with most methods of war tax resistance, you can adjust your technique, lower the amount resisted, or even “bail out” by paying up if circumstances change or if your risk tolerance changes. For some people, war tax resistance is a life-long commitment; for others, it is a temporary protest against a particular war, or is something that feels right to them at one point in their life but not so important at another. Others change their method of resistance as their goals or their lifestyle change.
Different Methods Have Different Risks
This page will briefly outline some of the risks associated with several of the common forms of war tax resistance. This will help you find a method that fits your goals and your risk tolerance.
Symbolic, legal protests
Living below taxable level
Telephone tax resistance
Filing and refusing to pay
Filing with a frivolous position
Risks of symbolic, legal protests
Some people try to register their protest with the government by the way they pay their taxes. They continue to pay what the law demands, but do so in a symbolic way, for instance by writing a message of protest on the check or sending a letter of protest along with their tax return, or by paying the tax with hundreds of small-denomination checks or coins.
There are some risks associated with even these methods, for instance:
- You risk being subjected to a $5,000 “frivolous filing” penalty by overzealous IRS employees. Although the agency is not authorized to add this penalty to tax returns that are accurate and timely, occasionally they will respond to returns that are filed with a protest by doing so, and it can be a cumbersome process to get the agency to rescind the penalty.
There are ways to mitigate such risks. For example, by conferring with a war tax resistance counselor, you can learn ways to make it less likely that the IRS will label your protest a case of “frivolous filing.”
Risks of living at an income below taxable level
Some people reduce the amount of their money that goes to the war machine by lowering their income to the point where they no longer owe any federal income tax.
These are some of the risks associated with this method:
- If to lower your income would mean a radical change of lifestyle, this may add stress to your life or to your family situation.
- A lower income may increase your financial insecurity and leave you less prepared for what unexpected things life may throw at you.
- You risk having your protest ignored by the government.
There are ways to mitigate these risks. For example, by conferring with a war tax resistance counselor, or by reading our “practical series” pamphlets on Low Income/Simple Living as War Tax Resistance and Health Care and Income Security for War Tax Resisters you can learn ways to live comfortably and securely on a lower income.
Risks of refusing to pay the telephone excise tax
Some people refuse to pay the federal excise tax that is attached to local telephone service bills. This tax has a long history of association with war. It was originally attached to phone bills to help pay for the Spanish-American War.
These are some risks associated with this form of resistance:
- Phone companies sometimes interpret your refusal to pay the portion of your bill that represents this tax as though you were refusing to pay your bill for phone service. This is not legally appropriate, but it often happens. If they do so, they may threaten to suspend your phone service or send you notices of late payments. It can be time-consuming and frustrating to convince your phone company to comply with the law and simply report your unpaid tax to the government.
- It is illegal to refuse to pay your phone tax, and the government may try to seize the unpaid amount from you. Because the amount of the phone tax is usually very small, the government rarely does anything. But during the Vietnam War, when this became a very popular protest tactic, the government did take desperate actions like seizing and auctioning off the cars of a few resisters who owed very small amounts of this tax.
- If, as is increasingly common, you give up your local landline service in favor of a cellular phone or an internet telephony service like Skype, you will no longer be subject to this tax, and so can no longer resist it.
There are ways to mitigate these risks. For example, you can go to the Hang Up On War! website to learn about how various phone companies deal with phone tax resisters, and to learn whom to contact about your bill to make sure your resistance is registered correctly.
Risks of filing a tax return but refusing to pay some or all of the tax owed
Some resisters file an accurate, complete, and timely income tax return, but refuse to pay some or all of the taxes that the return says they owe to the government. These are some of the possible risks of this form of tax resistance:
- You will likely receive a series of notices from the IRS, often written in a form of vague and confusing bureaucratese, complaining about your overdue tax.
- The IRS will add penalties and interest to the amount you owe. The penalties will continue to attach to that amount until they eventually reach 25% of the total, when they stop. The interest (which is added in an amount that changes from time to time as interest rates in general rise and fall) will continue to accumulate and compound until either the IRS manages to get the money from you or the statute of limitations expires on your tax debt.
- The IRS may eventually attempt to seize the amount it says you owe (including interest & penalties) by attaching your bank account or other similar assets, telling your employer to give it some or all of your salary, or even, in exceedingly rare cases these days, seizing property like a house or a car.
- If the IRS thinks you have not had enough money withheld from your paycheck throughout the year (and this is why you are able to refuse to pay when you file your return), it may require your employer to begin withholding at a higher rate, and this may make it more difficult for you to continue resisting in this fashion.
- Willful failure to pay your taxes is a criminal offense. It is currently almost unheard of for a war tax resister to be criminally charged for refusing to pay taxes, but the government may change its mind at some point and decide to use this tool.
There are ways to mitigate these risks. For example, you can read the advice in our pamphlet, “How to Resist Collection, or Make the Most of Collection When It Occurs,” to learn ways to reduce the risks associated with the IRS collections process, or you can confer with a war tax resistance counselor if you get a confusing notice from the IRS. The War Tax Resisters Penalty Fund can reimburse you for any penalties and interest the IRS seizes from you.
Risks of refusing to file a tax return
Some war tax resisters refuse to file a federal income tax return at all. Here are some of the possible risks associated with this approach:
- If you do not file, and the government does not notice, you may find that this does not represent a satisfactory protest.
- If the IRS is expecting a return from you, for instance because they have received information from an employer that you have received income or from a bank that you have received interest, they will send you letters demanding that you file, and threatening you with severe fines and penalties.
- The IRS may make a tax assessment of its own in place of the return you refused to file. Often this assessment is larger than the amount of owed tax would have been if you had filed a return, as the IRS will not go out of its way to look for deductions and credits you may qualify for.
- The potential monetary penalty for refusing to file is ten times as great as the penalty for filing and refusing to pay. The IRS will also attach interest to the amount it believes you owe plus the amount of the penalties.
- There is no statute of limitations that prevents the IRS from going after people who have not filed taxes. This means they could potentially try to get money from you for taxes many years after you refused to file.
- If the IRS catches up with nonfilers after many years of refusing to file, it may command them to file for every year for which they have not filed, and may fine them for each of these years even if it did not notice the refusal at the time.
- You may find it difficult to get government (or other) benefits that require a tax return to determine your qualification, such as Affordable Care Act health insurance subsidies or student financial aid programs.
- Willful failure to file a federal tax return is a criminal offense. It is very rare for a war tax resister to be criminally charged, but it is a possibility.
There are ways to mitigate these risks. For example, you can read the advice in our pamphlet, “To File or Not to File an Income Tax Return,” to learn more about these risks and how to avoid them or make them less trying.
Risks of filing a tax return that takes a “frivolous” tax position or that is deceptive
Some resisters file returns in ways that do not conform to legal requirements as the IRS interprets them. For example, some have claimed as “dependents” the charities they support, or the victims of a war or atrocity, or even the population of the world. Others have claimed a “war tax deduction” or have written the IRS to say that the Nuremberg Principles legally obligate them to stop paying taxes for nuclear weapons. Other resisters use creative or even outright deceptive ways of concealing income or claiming deductions and credits.
These are some of the possible risks of these methods:
- If the IRS decides that you have taken what it believes to be a “frivolous” legal position when filing your taxes or when communicating with it about your tax return, it can, on its own initiative (without a trial), add a $5,000 “frivolous filing penalty” to the tax you owe. It can do this each time you file or send it a communication about your account or return. You are not allowed to appeal such a fine without paying it first.
- If you are also paying less tax than the IRS believes you owe, you also run the same risks as explained in the previous section (“Risks of filing a tax return but refusing to pay some or all of the tax owed”).
- If you are taking either a “frivolous” legal position, or are improperly applying for credits or deductions, or are concealing income, and the IRS discovers this, you may be subject to criminal penalties for tax evasion as well.
In some cases war tax resisters can fight a frivolous penalty; read the advice in our page on the “frivolous filing penalty”. Using deceptive tactics when filing a return can lead to heavy penalties that are difficult to fight.
More information on the risks of war tax resistance and how to confront them can be found through these resources:
- profiles of resisters on this website
- the book War Tax Resistance: A Guide to Withholding Your Support from the Military
- talking with a war tax counselor and with other war tax resisters
- the pamphlet “How to Resist Collection, or Make the Most of Collection When It Occurs”
- war tax resistance pages on the War Resisters League website
- NWTRCC’s film Death and Taxes