Should Presidential Nominees Release Their Tax Returns?

Chad Silver

Chad Silver

Managing Partner of Silver Tax Group, author of the book "Stop the IRS". Practicing a variety of tax issues, regulations, laws and rights. Specializing exclusively on tax matters involving IRS audits, negotiation, settlements & compromises.

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On behalf of Silver Tax Group posted in Tax Law on Monday, October 24, 2016.

In just a few weeks, Americans will select the next president of the United States. As the campaigns complete their final pushes toward the finish line, one topic remains in the media: the release (or nonrelease) of nominees’ tax returns.

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Tax Returns And The 2016 Election: What’s Important?

Like many people, we’ve found ourselves asking these questions: Should candidates release their tax returns? Does it really matter? Is this an issue we should focus our attention on, or is there something else we should be examining ahead of the election?

Laying aside any political bias, we have compiled an examination of this topic that looks at those questions through three lenses:

  1. The history of candidates releasing such information, 
  2. What information is actually in those returns, and
  3. What other issues or related topics could be examined so people don’t get stuck on a single issue.

Examining Historical Trends

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Until this year, every GOP nominee in the past nine presidential election cycles has released his tax returns. During that same span (going back to when Jimmy Carter was running for office), Democrats have done the same. Prior to that, the release of tax returns was not as consistent. For example, even though Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) is often cited as an example of transparency for sharing 25 years worth of tax returns, those returns weren’t actually released until after FDR passed away and his family decided to make them public.


Making Returns Public: What Can You Learn?

Many people get up in arms either for or against candidates releasing tax documents. But to make sure the argument isn’t just defending the actions of your chosen candidate, an important question needs to be asked: What can you actually learn from these tax returns?

Information such as income, tax bracket, and use of deductions and other tax code provisions is perhaps nice to know, but what can it tell us about candidates? Many claim that such information gives voters insight into the judgment and decision-making abilities of candidates. Others claim that it allows potential conflicts of interest to be identified, so that voters aren’t taken by surprise later. The list goes on, without a definitive end, and even includes potential revelations such as one candidate chastising another for using a tax deduction, but also using that same deduction, too.


Policy And Procedures For Release

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No law requires the release of individual tax returns by presidential nominees. Although there have been many iterations of bills to implement such a law, the release of this information is truly voluntary. Many candidates follow certain semi-established rules for the timing (usually around tax day, April 15) and type of release they provide. Others share slightly different information or offer a different type of release (such as Gerald Ford providing a summary of his returns without providing the full documents). Ultimately, there is no uniform process or requirement for releases.


Letting Other Issues Slip By?

There are, of course, other major issues at hand in this election. International policy. Immigration. The economy. Terrorism (domestic and international). With those issues at the forefront, how much time and effort should be devoted to discussing candidates’ tax returns? We don’t have the answer, be we believe that people should ask themselves that question to make sure that no matter what they choose to focus on, they have at least tried to maintain a broader perspective.


As The Election Draws Closer, Will Trump’s Stand Continue? Should It?

Still, many wonder: Will Donald Trump continue to keep his tax returns under wraps? Equally important is a general policy question: Should he be pressured to provide documents when there is no rule or law that requires him to do so? Are Democrats and Republicans who don’t support Trump truly angry that he hasn’t released financial information, or are they more concerned that he isn’t following their unspoken rules?


Ready To Learn More About Tax Law?

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Information about other tax law topics is available on our website. If you enjoyed this article, please share it on Facebook and Twitter. No matter whom you support in the upcoming election, get out and vote!

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