This time of year, many small business owners start scrambling to find ways to reduce their business tax burdens: Paying or accruing expenses earlier than usual, delaying invoices so revenues can be booked in January rather than December, etc.
And those are just basic possibilities. Tax planning - and filing taxes - can be incredibly complicated and frustrating.
But it could be worse, as William Zumwalt, a third-generation CPA in Tulsa, Oklahoma, explains:
No one likes paying taxes. But what adds insult to injury for so many of us is just how maddeningly complicated it all gets. If you're like most Americans you've seen your own return grow longer and more complicated over the years. Maybe you've noticed the new Schedule M for the Making Work Pay Credit. Maybe you've bought rental property and filed separate depreciation schedules for regular tax, state tax, and Alternative Minimum Tax. President Obama's 2010 tax return ran to 59 pages, and it's not unusual for complicated individual returns to run over 100 pages, including forms, schedules, worksheets and statements.
Of course, that's not really surprising, given the source of all the confusion. The U.S. Government Printing Office's own version of the Internal Revenue Code -- available for the bargain price of just $179 -- runs 3,387 pages. Add the IRS's regulations, for $974 more (shipping generously included!), and you're up to 16,845 pages. (Trust us, we actually have to read this stuff.) But if you need any reason to be thankful this holiday season, be glad you're not responsible for filing the country's largest tax return.
General Electric is America's sixth-biggest corporation and its biggest conglomerate. Originally founded by Thomas Edison in 1890, GE manufactures everything from light bulbs and refrigerators to jet engines, locomotives, and nuclear reactors. Their GE Capital unit, which accounts for over half of their profit, is bigger than all but six standalone banks. It shouldn't surprise you that GE files a pretty hefty tax return. Their tax department, which the New York Times says, "...is often referred to as the world's best tax law firm," employs 975 people. GE files thousands of tax returns every year, for every country in the world (or at least every country that requires a tax return), every state in the U.S., and more cities than you can name.
But no one really cares what GE's Vermont return looks like, right? What about their flagship U.S. federal income tax? 2006 was the first year the IRS required corporations with assets over $50 million to file electronically. That year, GE spent over $500,000 just to develop their e-filing system. Their first electronic return took a full 30 minutes to transmit but replaced what would have been 24,000 pages of paper. (The IRS would have needed to convert those 24,000 pages into electronic form anyway.)
Since then, GE's return has grown even larger. For 2010, the firm reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion. (That's more than the entire economies of Iceland and Jamaica.) GE paid $2.7 billion in worldwide tax but actually claimed a $3.2 billion refund from the U.S. Treasury, most of it due to losses at the GE Capital unit resulting from the 2008 financial collapse. Their actual tax return swelled to 57,000 pages.
Print them all out and you'll have a stack of paper 19 feet high.
And you thought your business tax returns were complicated.