How Confident Are You When Researching Tax Questions?

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Where will you find one sentence that is nearly twice as long as the entire Gettysburg Address? The Internal Revenue Code, of course. The Gettysburg Address is 278 words, while one whopper of a sentence in the IRC exceeds 450 words. And this isn’t the only instance of a long and confusing sentence! The IRC, with its 4 million words, is full of mind-bending sentences about limitations that hinge on combinations of multiple variables. Think algebra!

There are, however, some secrets to breaking the Internal Revenue Code, says Annette Nellen, CPE Link instructor on tax research (and San Jose University professor). “The Internal Revenue Code is not an easy document to navigate, read and effectively use. But there are tactics that knowledgeable researchers use.” The first, says Nellen, is to understand the structure of the code, so you can narrow your search.

So say you have become intimate with the code structure and have zeroed in on the relevant sections, subsections, and paragraphs. You’ve read carefully, paying close attention to the and’s and or’s; to the less than’s, more than’s, and at least’s (and to the words in parentheses.) You’ve scoured the code for relevant definitions, and you’ve checked out cross-references looking for clarifications or conflicts.

But even after all the reading, rereading, and reading again, the IRC hasn’t yielded a clear answer to your tax question. That’s not surprising, says Annette Nellen. “The IRC is the place to start and you may find your answer there, but that’s not usually the case.”

Your next step: the Federal Tax Regulations.


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