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Tax Basics: A Beginners Guide to Taxes

Congress, the legislative branch of the government, writes the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), also called the tax code. The tax code directs the collection of taxes, the enforcement of the tax rules, and the issuance of tax refunds, rebates, and credits. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is the government agency within the U.S. Department of Treasury charged with carrying out these functions. Since everyone must pay taxes of some sort -- whether it's sales tax on a gallon of milk or capital gains tax on a $5 million stock sale -- it's important to get a general understanding of taxation in the United States.

For articles focused on more specific topics, see the index for FindLaw's Tax Law section.

Tax Basics: How is the Tax Code Interpreted?

The IRS interprets tax provisions through IRS regulations, which provide guidance on the application of tax law. Because not every tax code has a regulation, the IRS also uses revenue rulings, revenue procedures, and letter rulings to offer guidance. Although the IRS can offer its own interpretation of the tax code, when a dispute arises it is the role of the federal court system -- a part of the judicial branch of the government -- to interpret the tax code and to decide how Congress intended its application.

Tax Basics: How Does the Government Use Taxes?

The U.S. government collects income taxes, payroll taxes, sales taxes and real estate taxes from individuals and companies. The government disburses the money, according to its budget, to the appropriate agency to use for purposes like national defense, Social Security, education, national parks, and for government services like welfare.

Tax Basics: How Does the Government Collect Income Taxes?

The government receives most of its revenue for its budget through income taxes. The collection of income taxes occurs throughout the year by withholdings from a person's paychecks. At the end of the year, every person that earned income must file a tax return to determine whether the government collected enough taxes through withholding or whether the government owes a person a refund for paying too much tax.

Tax Basics: What is Taxable Income?

There are two types of income subject to taxation: earned income and unearned income. Earned income includes:

  • Salary
  • Wages
  • Tips
  • Commissions
  • Bonuses
  • Unemployment benefits
  • Sick pay
  • Some noncash fringe benefits

Taxable unearned income includes:

  • Interest
  • Dividends
  • Profit from the sale of assets
  • Business and farm income
  • Rents
  • Royalties
  • Gambling winnings
  • Alimony

It is possible to reduce taxable income by contributing to a retirement account like a 401(k) or an IRA.

Tax Basics: What are Allowed Deductions?

The government allows the deduction of some types of expenses from a person's adjusted gross income, or gross income minus adjustments. A person can exclude some income from taxation by using a standard deduction amount determined by the government and a person's filing status or by itemizing certain types of expenses. Allowable itemized expenses include mortgage interest, state and local taxes, charitable contributions, and medical expenses.

If in Doubt, Get Informed: Contact a Tax Law Attorney

Anyone can make an honest mistake with regard to taxes, but the IRS can be quite strict. And since everyone's tax situation is a little different, you may have questions that aren't easily answered through a simple online search. Get ahead of the curve and get help from an experienced tax law attorney. You can also find answers to state-specific tax law questions here.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified tax attorney to help you navigate your federal and/or state tax issues.

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