Home Page
Income Tax Page

Income Tax Myths

"The laws do not make anyone 'liable' for income taxes."

Where's the Word "Liable"?

Anti-tax zealots sometimes lay great stress on the fact that the income tax laws don’t expressly state who is “liable” for the payment of income taxes. The tax protestor will point out that with regard to certain other taxes—the excise tax imposed on liquor, for example—the tax code has a section headed “Persons Liable for Tax,” which expressly states who is “liable” for the tax imposed. (You can see this particular example at 26 U.S.C. § 5005.) There is, tax protestors say, no comparable section stating who is “liable” for income taxes.

Well, there’s a grain of truth to this point: it’s true that the income tax portion of the tax code doesn’t happen to use the word “liable” in describing who is required to pay income taxes. But the tax code does make you liable to pay taxes on your income. To be "liable" for something means to be "obligated according to law or equity." The income tax code obligates you to pay income tax by stating that every person who is required to file an income tax return “shall pay” the income tax. That’s in 26 U.S.C. § 6151, described in detail here. When the law says that you “shall pay” the tax, you have to pay the tax. Therefore, you are liable for it.

There’s nothing magic about the word “liable.” There’s no rule that says that Congress has to use a particular word, such as the word “liable,” to tell you to pay income taxes. The English language provides many synonyms and many different ways to express the same point. Congress can use any words that adequately express what it’s trying to say. The statutory statement that you “shall pay” the tax is a perfectly adequate way of saying that you have to pay the tax. Congress doesn’t have to use the word “liable” any more than it has to use the word “abracadabra.”