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After Senator Warren went on TV and said Elon Musk paid $0 in taxes in 2018, he responded in a Tweet dated 20 Feb 2022 saying (emphasis added):

Will visit IRS next time I’m in DC just to say hi, since I paid the most taxes ever in history for an individual last year. Maybe I can have a cookie or something …

From the context, it is clear both are talking about personal federal income taxes (not sales tax, property tax, state income tax, or taxes on Musk's businesses).

Also, "last year" is ambiguous as depending on how you file, one might pay 2021 taxes throughout 2021, all in 2022 when filing, or some of both. And, Warren was talking about 2018 (with the same ambiguity about which year's taxes it was). Regardless, Musk's claim clearly applies to either 2020 or 2021, so answers should look at one of those two years.

Did Elon Musk pay the most income taxes ever for an individual for tax year 2020 or 2021?

I'm skeptical that the IRS even publishes enough information for someone to know how their own tax bill compares to that of others.

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    It might be better to come at this from the opposite angle, and ask whether Senator Warren's claim about Musk paying $0 in taxes is true. Finding Musk's tax bill is one thing, but empirically comparing it to every tax bill for every individual in recorded history is a bit much.
    – F1Krazy
    Feb 22 at 14:14
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    Did Senator Warren claim that Musk paid no income tax in 2021? I see that she claimed he paid no income tax in 2018. That comment was, I assume, founded on this ProPublica report which makes the same claim: propublica.org/article/…. And to answer your last question: no, IRS filings are not public. There is no straightforward way that Musk could know that his tax bill was the highest ever.
    – Juhasz
    Feb 22 at 23:46
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    This question seems to misunderstand the context a little bit. The linked tweet includes a recording of Warren saying that Musk paid $0 in income tax in 2018. Musk counters with, "Well, my 2021 tax bill was very large." There's no obvious disagreement between Warren and Musk over his 2018 or 2021 tax bills. There is disagreement over how much he should have been paying in years like 2014-2018, where, according to ProPublica, he paid a "true tax rate" of 3.27%.
    – Juhasz
    Feb 22 at 23:59
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    While such information is not public he should know how much he would pay and see if any individual reported similar asset sales - i.e. if he actually needed to pay tax on most of 12.7 billion of the stock he sold this year for someone else to beat that tax bill it would mean even bigger sale - there are not so many people whose total net worth is even close (~700 in US with at least 1 billion) and most of such large sales had to be disclosed for stock sales and relatively public for other assets... One can write answer with public info about largest estimated individual tax for live person.. Feb 23 at 2:36
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    @Juhasz regardless of the context, the claim itself ("I paid the most ever in 2021") can be examined in isolation.
    – LShaver
    Feb 25 at 15:16

1 Answer 1

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There's a Good Chance

While only the IRS knows for sure, Musk's roughly 11 billion dollar tax bill could be the biggest ever. By exercising stock options and selling Tesla shares Musk has created for himself a giant tax bill. ABC estimates that the tax bill is roughly 10.7 billion dollars, CNBC's estimated about 12 billion dollars, and Musk himself says the bill is over 11 billion dollars.

We can't know for sure whether that is the largest tax bill ever, although it could be. As ProPublica's investigation found, the rich are very good at dodging taxes. In fact, Elon Musk only paid 455 million dollars in the 2014-2018 period ProPublica looked at, including in 2018, where he avoided income tax completely.

The IRS doesn't publish tax returns, so we can't know for sure, but given how good the rich are at avoiding taxes, and how few people have enough wealth to get a tax bill that large even if things work perfectly, there's a pretty good chance Elon Musk set a new record for the US's largest tax bill. Elon Musk probably doesn't have access to the information necessary to make this determination either, and is instead stating a reasonable but unverifiable claim as fact in an attempt to get a little bit of positive PR and take a shot at someone who would gladly make him pay that much on a routine basis.

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  • "only" 455 million dollars.
    – JohnFx
    May 16 at 3:53
  • @JohnFx as large as that number is in absolute terms, it's pretty small considering how much money Elon makes. His wealth grew by about $13.9 billion over that time span, giving him an effective tax rate of about 3.27%, which is relatively small, especially considering he is firmly in the 37% income tax bracket.
    – Aiden4
    May 16 at 4:49
  • His paper wealth. God help all of us if they start taxing unrealized gains.
    – JohnFx
    May 16 at 19:49

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