Finding the American family in the tax code

Just what makes an American family? The answer or answers, for Tessa Davis, can be found in the tax code.

“We have two concepts of family in the code and one is much broader and that’s when we’re trying to provide a benefit,” says Davis, a University of South Carolina law school professor with a background in anthropology. “We have a much more narrow concept of family on what I call the anti-abuse or enforcement side.”

What that means is that a support relationship among folks living together who are not related by blood or law might be recognized for certain tax benefits, such as the dependent exemption. But that same relationship may not be recognized when someone is trying to “game the system” by reducing a tax burden through, for example, questionable property transfers.

Tax law may seem far afield from Davis’ bachelor’s and master’s degrees in anthropology, but she says the two disciplines fit together very nicely.

“There is this idea that tax kind of stands alone and it’s this complex impenetrable realm of law and that you always have a clear answer,” she says. “It really is just another area of law that intersects with the type of country we want to be, depending upon how many programs we want to fund and how are we going to fund them.

“This goes to our question of how do we want to define family and how do we want to subsidize individuals supporting each other.”

Davis’ primary research interest is exploring how federal and state tax codes define and treat families. She hopes her work ensures that changes to the tax code are well-informed and she thinks some changes should be made to make it less discriminatory.

“Obviously, there are a lot of things we can debate, of what’s the proper boundaries of family and we have to come to some consensus with that,” she says. “My hope with my scholarship is that it breaks out of just being talked about in the tax realm and may come across policymakers’ and lawmakers’ desks and may ultimately come into the drafting of law itself.

“I want to be sure we’re making conscious decisions about how we define family so it’s not just by mistake that we have these definitions of family in the code, that it’s a deliberate choice.”

On the teaching side, Davis has the general income tax course that all students will take and the corporate tax course that will include many students who may specialize in tax law.

“My goal in the first class is showing them for their own practice, how tax connects to other areas of law. If you are in family law, there are the tax implications of marriage, the tax implications surrounding divorce, alimony payments, child support payments. If you’re in real estate, there is a whole collection of tax implications depending on how you structure a deal.”

For the corporate class, she focuses on the tax implications of how corporations and deals are structure, but she also wants her students to realize the larger picture as well.

“At first, I thought tax was this narrow field, but now I see how it connects to everything,” she says. “It’s how we fund everything that we do as a nation, as a society.”

Need help?

The UofSC Law School and Darla Moore School of Business have teamed up for more than 20 years to offer low-income and elderly South Carolinians free tax help. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance teams will provide assistance through March 31: 4-7 p.m., Tuesday and Thursday, at SC Works (700 Taylor St.), and 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday and 9 a.m.-12 p.m. Saturday in the Law School lobby. To learn more about supporting professors and community programs at the UofSC School of Law, visit Carolina's Promise

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