U.S. Tax Code On-Line

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This document allows you to access the complete text of the United States Internal Revenue Code, Title 26 of the U.S. Code (26 USC) in a variety of ways. Hyperlinks have been embedded in the Code to permit following cross-references between sections with a simple mouse click. A WAIS-based full-text search engine allows you to quickly locate Code sections by content.

Access and navigation

You can access the Code through its own hierarchical table of contents, a comprehensive (flat) table of contents (Note: this file is almost 300K and takes a while to retrieve), or an index by section number, handy when you're looking up a citation in another document.

Each section of the Code contains navigation buttons which provide immediate access to the next and previous section, the table of contents, the section index, the text search request form, and this document. Below the title at the top of a section is its complete citation in the Code, for example:

TITLE 26, Subtitle F, CHAPTER 61, Subchapter A, PART I, Sec. 6001

Each component in these citations is hyperlinked to the hierarchical table of contents entry for that component of the Code, within which each item is linked to the document that contains it. This allows you to easily move up and down the hierarchy.

Full-text searching

The complete Internal Revenue Code is more than 24 megabytes in length, and contains more than 3.4 million words; printed 60 lines to the page, it would fill more than 7500 letter-size pages. Looking for something buried in that mass of verbiage can be daunting. By harnessing the freeWAIS-sf indexing and retrieval engine to the Web version of the tax code, you can search the entire Code for words or combinations of words, navigating directly to sections that matched the query by following a link. For example, entering "forfeiture AND beer" in the query box and pressing Start search locates all 13 sections of the Code containing those words, ranked in descending order of relevance as determined by the weighting algorithm in freeWAIS-sf. You can compose more complex queries using the standard freeWAIS-sf query syntax.

Weasel words

The source document for this Web server was obtained from the U.S. House of Representatives Office of the Law Revision Counsel, and is current up to January 19th, 2004.

English text isn't a programming language. Compiling it automatically into hypertext is not an error-free process. The HTML version of the Code is, as far as I know, complete and correct, containing every word in the original ASCII document. However, the process of linking cross-references, which provides much of the added value compared to a printed edition of the Code, requires a large number of heuristics (or as they used be called, kludges) which attempt to parse the text of the statute sections of the Code and identify both the hierarchy of the text and references within it.

As a result, while the overwhelming majority of the more than 23000 cross-references are properly linked, there are the occasional cross-references which are not linked. The Code contains both internal cross-references and identically formatted references to other sections of the U.S. Code and to other laws entirely. For example, in Section 9501(d)(7) of the Code, there's a reference to "section 402(i)" which isn't a cross-reference to the Internal Revenue Code at all, but rather a citation of a section of the Black Lung Benefits Act, as the text goes on to explain. A vast armamentarium of dirty tricks allows me to identify most, but not all, of these external references, including this one. The few that were missed appear erroneously as links within the Internal Revenue Code. Conversely, a few references within the Code are not linked because the translator program decided they were external references (if you encounter one of these, it's easy to go to the section index and navigate directly to the cited section).

When you stumble across one of these warts, it's generally obvious from the context which document is actually cited. I've invested a substantial time in manual editing to fix the most of the errors, but I'm sure some remain. I don't find the few lingering errors to be an impediment to practical use of the on-line Code. I decided not to link internal references within individual sections because there would be many missed and incorrect links due to the many different styles of citations within the text. Besides, I don't think the benefit would justify inflating the file size for all those additional local links; it's just as easy to use the scroll bar.

The Statute parts of the Code (the actual law) are compiled into HTML which attempts to express the hierarchy in the text by indentation. All the other parts, such as amendment histories, transitional rules, references in text, etc. are written to an auxiliary document pointed to by title links in the main statute document. All the auxiliary parts are written as "preformatted text", precisely as they appeared in the original ASCII document. It doesn't look great, but it's perfectly usable for material that one seldom refers to. Besides, making the U.S. tax law look pretty is like gilding a dog turd: you could do it, but what's the point?

I make absolutely no representations or warranties regarding this document and I accept no responsibility whatsoever for any consequences of your use of it. I've tried to be careful in converting a huge mass of unindexed ASCII text into a live document that's genuinely useful for research, but I'm a fallible human who insists that other members of his species assume total responsibility for their own actions.

And finally, if you use this document for your own personal or business tax planning, please keep in mind that in the Anglo-Saxon legal system, the law is not so much what is written down, but what the courts have decided in cases. People, particularly folks with a background in engineering or science, often assume the law can be interpreted and manipulated like a set of axioms. It doesn't work that way. So while there is a great deal one can learn from a document such as the Internal Revenue Code, it's no substitute for expert professional advice when you're making decisions that affect your own wallet. Conversely, when dealing with experts, having access to the Code is a good way to find out just how expert they really are, and how accurate the advice you're getting actually is.

Development details

The complete U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act is also available in this format. Visit my home page for other documents and software, some relevant to business, economics, and politics.

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by John Walker