This article examines some miscellaneous and incidental forms of income from a comparative point of view. It appears that U.S. law includes as income more types of incidental items than most other countries. The items briefly considered here are (in no particular order) found money and property, gambling gains, gains from a personal hobby, isolated criminal profits, prizes and awards for merit, damages from non-physical personal injury, and gains from sale of a personal residence. The article concludes with a more thorough examination of income from the cancellation of debts (COD income) of an individual. These items have in common for the most part the fact that they are not usually associated with recurrent business and investment, which are at the heart of the income tax, but rather with transactions or events of private life. In most European countries, these items are not taxable.
In American tax theory, taxation of these incidental items has been justified by the absolutist doctrine that all economic benefit of any kind should be taxed, even if enforcement is impractical or even impossible. In some cases the U.S. rules overshoot the mark altogether, and result in taxation even where there is no gain at all. American elevation of principle over practicality forms a significant part of our legal tradition, and laws that are purely aspirational in nature reflect a continuing legacy of our Puritan past. In most of the examples of incidental income I have chosen, there is little or no revenue at stake, and it is precisely because so little is at stake that these examples can be so instructive about our legal culture.
49 N. Y. L. Sch. L. Rev. 695 (2004-2005)