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Are Some Americans Paying Federal Income Tax They Don’t Owe?

Headline got your attention? No, it isn’t a come-on for a new tax avoidance scheme. Rather, it reflects an interesting but little known problem with the federal income tax system: People who have tax withheld from their paychecks but, for some reason, don’t file returns. For many, blowing off their 1040 means they are paying tax they don’t owe.

According to one estimate, in 2003 more than 8 million people had almost $16 billion in taxes withheld but did not file 1040s. Not only did many pay tax they didn’t owe but some likely missed out on refundable credits that could have improved their well-being.

To some degree, this is the flip side of another set of numbers that get far more attention—those American who pay no federal income tax.  The other day, the Tax Policy Center estimated that about 43 percent of Americans will be off the federal income tax rolls in 2013, down from 47 percent in 2009.

Nearly three in four non-payers file 1040s. Nearly all pay some tax—sales taxes, payroll taxes, excise taxes and the like. And most have income taxes withheld from their paychecks but get these payments returned from the government in the form of refunds or credits.

There are also people who make money, have no tax withheld, and owe no tax. Think low-income retirees who are living on Social Security or younger adults who work but make very little.

But a surprisingly large number of people do work, do have taxes withheld, but never file 1040s. Because we don’t know much about them, TPC treats them as non-payers of income tax even though some do pay through withholding. As a result, our estimate that 43 percent of Americans don’t pay federal income tax is probably high.

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Heritage Income Tax offers a full range of tax preparation services. Located in Portsmouth, Virginia, we serve the entire Hampton Roads area including the cities of Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Suffolk, Newport News and Hampton.