"As people age and earn more income, they learn that the IRS has its interests, and taxpayers have theirs," he says.
"I was very pleasantly surprised to see that about two-thirds of taxpayers don't trust the IRS to prepare their return. That's a wise instinct. The IRS' interest is in maximizing tax revenue. The taxpayer's interest is paying the least legally allowed. That's a conflict for the IRS. You can't be the tax collector and the tax preparer and not have the former overwhelm the latter."
But IRS spokesman Dean Patterson points out that the IRS doesn't legislate; it enforces tax law. "The IRS' goal is for people to pay the right amount in taxes: no more, no less," he says.
Comfortable or clueless?
When asked if they feel comfortable or clueless about tax planning and prep, 67 percent reported feeling comfortable. Still, more than a quarter (28 percent) feel clueless.
"It's interesting that so many people feel comfortable," says Burman, considering research by academics at the University of Michigan and Princeton whose 2000 study concluded that people are clueless about the tax system.
According to Nancy Mathis, a spokeswoman for the IRS, approximately 60 percent of Americans get help from a tax professional when filing their taxes. It's hard to tell whether respondents would feel comfortable without professional help and how many of those, if any, feel uncomfortable despite receiving professional help.
"I might have expected a slightly lower number of respondents to have felt comfortable with tax planning and preparation," says lobbyist Bob Weinberger, vice president of government relations at H&R Block. He thinks the number may be inflated because the alternative forces respondents to identify themselves as "clueless," which may be too harsh. If pollsters had used the word "uncertain," they might have produced a different result, he says.
"That would explain why 67 percent can feel comfortable, but 60 percent still use a paid tax preparer," he says. "It may also reflect the value of a taxpayer's time: We can change the oil in our car or mow the lawn, but it may be worth the cost to hire someone else to do it for us."