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I have done legal research before, but mostly on criminal law and civil claims/torts.

Tax law is a whole nother beast. First of all, most of it is not actually laws at all, but regulations. And it is a ginormous mass of stuff which is particularly technical and hard to parse.

If I wanted to research particular topics in tax law, what would be the right approach. Are there specific types of official guides that can make the problem easier, sort of a Cliff Notes of tax law?

  • RIA and CCH each publish single volume summaries of U.S. tax law. The CCH one is called the "Master Tax Guide", I forget what the RIA one is called. Neither is official. There are a variety of official publications on particular topics at irs.gov. The "nutshell" series on tax topics is very good. Issue spotting is still difficult without mastery of an entire area of tax law (e.g. partnership or estate tax). Most tax regs are numerically linked to the code section (hence Treas. Reg. § 1.62-4 as the fourth reg on section 62 of Title 26), but there are also rev. rulings, rev. procs, PLRs etc. – ohwilleke Jan 5 '17 at 19:37
  • @ohwilleke I saw that exact thing the CCH Master Tax Guide, which is the kind of thing I need. The interpretations in the CCH are just the basic ones though, so the CCH is just sort of the starting point for a topic. – Cicero Jan 5 '17 at 21:11
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This depends on your objective.

If you want to comply with tax law, then you essentially want to ensure that you are following the rules promulgated by the executive agency responsible for enforcing it. E.g., for U.S. federal taxes you would start with IRS publications.

But, as you note, there is an often broad chasm between how the IRS has chosen to translate tax law into rules (e.g., IRBs and Forms) and regulations (i.e., 26 CFR), and what the law actually says. If your objective is to look for breaks between the former and the latter then you also need to jump into the tax code (which, for the U.S., is Title 26). And, of course, if your objective is to potentially challenge the executive agency for misapplication of the code, you'd also do well to familiarize yourself with relevant case law. In the U.S., fortunately, a lot of that is consolidated in the U.S. Tax Court.

  • I am more interested from a compliance standpoint. The kind of questions I have are technical and way beyond anything that is explained by IRS publications. I really need a way to analyze and understand particular areas of the tax code. – Cicero Jan 5 '17 at 16:14
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    @Cicero - Unfortunately, I think this is why accountants and tax lawyers get paid the big bucks: If it really isn't covered by a Form or Publication, then you have to have extensive familiarity with the IRBs, CFR, and applicable cases. At least in the U.S., tax compliance is byzantine. In fact, part of the reason an exceptional accountant or lawyer is worth their cost is because they know the non-routine stuff better than the IRS, and have a better sense of what should apply to hard questions, and so they very often prevail in disputes with the IRS. – feetwet Jan 5 '17 at 17:19
  • I know that, the point of my question is to find strategies for acquiring that expert knowledge; what is a research approach? – Cicero Jan 5 '17 at 17:47
  • @Cicero I don't think I can do better than the enumeration of sources in my answer. I.e., for U.S. federal tax law all authoritative material exists in one or more of those five primary sources ... plus opinions issued by the "regular" courts. – feetwet Jan 5 '17 at 18:18
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    There are services that have comprehensive treatment of detailed issues, but they are very expensive (ca. $10k per year last I checked for the most common areas and more for specialties like insurance company taxation or oil and gas issues). – ohwilleke Jan 5 '17 at 19:44

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