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Court Lets Irs Keep Ill-Gotten Gains

Wed., Feb. 19, 1997

Saying it is more important for the tax laws to be efficient than fair, the Supreme Court Tuesday rejected a refund request from a retired Los Angeles schoolteacher whose senile father had mistakenly sent a $7,000 check to the Internal Revenue Service.

The tax agency kept the money after it arrived in 1984, even though the 93-year old man did not owe any taxes. When his daughter discovered the mistake after his death in 1989, the IRS said it was too late to issue a refund because she filed the claim after the legal deadline to do so.

Upholding the government’s refusal, the high court ruled unanimously that the strict time deadlines set in the tax law cannot be waived by the courts, even in sympathetic cases.

By setting these firm deadlines, “Congress decided to pay the price of occasional unfairness in individual cases in order to maintain a more workable tax enforcement system,” wrote Justice Stephen G. Breyer for the court.


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