The tax muse is like everything else in government.
She is a committee.
The Internal Revenue Service has something called the tax forms coordinating committee, a group whose job it is to light the taxpayers' path through the pages and pages of forms the IRS has put in the mail, carefully timed to arrive after Christmas.
Each year about 25 IRS employes struggle with the task of elucidating instructions on how to compute "net earnings from farm self-employment," of penning the crystal phrase that says everything there is to say about "refunds of state and local income taxes," of devising the formula that will somehow make it all clear.
It is a worsmith's job, subtle as poetry if not as elegant. A simple "(insurance)" dropped in after the words "unemployment compensation" can suddenly illuminate instructions for thousands of taxpayers used to the phrase "unemployment insurance."
This year the knot to be undone entailed ensuring that taxpayers who change their names in midyear -- adding or dropping a spouse's name or hitching it on with a hyphen, for instance -- receive their refunds. The result of the committee's labor was a paragraph added to the forms 1040 and 1040A, filed by some 90 million taxpayers.
"If you have changed your name because of marriage, divorce, etc., make sure you immediately notify the Social Security Administration (SSA) so the name on your tax return is the same as the name SSA has on its records. This may prevent delays in issuing your refund."
But the committee's changes aren't of the fast and furious variety. "The most frequent comment we always get is 'Leave the form alone,'" said Nelson A. Brooke, assistant director of the tax forms and publications division of the IRS. "Many people will take last year's form and lay it next to this year's form to help them fill it out."
It is Brooke's job to preside over the committee -- a group made up of representatives from major divisions of the IRS.The committee is charged with reviewing public comment and changes in the law and distilling them all into one of the best-read publications in the world. The committee meets in midsummer, when April 15 is just a memory for most taxpayers, to try to determine if changes are needed, either to deal with a frequent problem or just to clarify.
"I've been in the IRS for 15 years," Brooke said, "and I think the [tax] code has just about doubled in size," further complicating the business of telling taxpayers how to fill out forms. "It's never gotten easier."
Even so, the service has been able to make the forms more readable, as seen through IRS eyes. From a form in 1976 that required at least a year's college education to comprehend, the IRS has arrived at a form that a person with a 9th- or 10th-grade education can reasonably be expected to understand, assuming some familiarity with household financial management.
The IRS usually gets about 200 comments each from a published request in the Federal Register and in response to the commissioner's message. The service holds hearings in four cities each year as well. Meetings this year in Seattle, Des Moines, Burlington, Vt., and Atlanta attracted from 25 to 50 taxpayers, Brooke said.
The comments vary in their usefulness.
"One gentleman wrote in and said we should delete the word 'please' from the forms, because hearing the IRS say 'please' was like having a man with a gun at your head say 'please,'" Brooke said. Other taxpayers have suggested a dollar checkoff for the U.S. Olympic teams. Still others have proposed putting a smiling face next to the line that indicates a taxpayer is due a refund and a sad face next to the line that indicates a taxpayer must fork over more money.
The risk, said Brooke, is that some taxpayers might not be amused.
"Generally the letters are very positive," said Brooke. "Only occasionally is there something that could be taken in a bad light -- like, 'take this form and shove it.'"
Besides trying to render the tax forms comprehensible, Brooke and his troops have to guard against errors in the form or instructions. The IRS booklets go through several proofreadings.
Even so, a careful reader will note that on pages 10 and 11 of the long form, the page notations are in a different typeface. The error was caught after the forms went to the printer and was deemed too minor to require correction.
The forms and instructions went to the printer last October, even though there was a chance that last-minute congressional changes in the law might require an update. "We have to print about 40 million 1040 packages. That ties up a lot of printers for a long time," Brooke said.
Consultants help measure so-called readability with computerized formulas that compare the number of words in sentences with the length and difficulty of the words. The IRS also tries out its forms on people, asking students, elderly taxpayers or clerical workers at the IRS to act as guinea pigs.
"We try to see where the real horror stories are -- where no one can compute," Brooke said.
The instructions for this year's form 1040 caution: "We have set up this year's instructions using 9 steps. You should complete the first 4 steps that follow BEFORE you begin to fill out your return." The instructions lead the taxpayer by the hand a bit further and then add, "If you follow these steps and read the line-by-line instructions, we feel you can fill in your return quickly and accurately."
(Just don't forget to sign your check.)