You Can Ask the IRS a Tax Question, But Don't
By Eva Rosenberg, MBA, EA, March 22, 2001, firstname.lastname@example.org
The IRS Mission: Provide America's taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and by applying the tax law with integrity and fairness to all.
Since the big revamping of the last couple of years, IRS's new mission statement has changed. Do you see anything in that statement about collecting taxes? Not a word.
Give me a break! The real job of our nation's tax agency is to make sure that the U.S.A. has the money to pay for all the services our citizens need and/or demand. And while that means providing great service, it basically boils down to collecting taxes. And we want them to do it - well.
But, since IRS has a new focus on service, let's see how they're doing. We'll drop in on the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) and see what his office reports about IRS. all the reports.
Let's start with the highlights:
PROVIDING QUALITY CUSTOMER SERVICE OPERATIONS - see the report - ''The level of service provided to taxpayers on the 3 main telephone lines declined from 73 percent in the prior-filing season to 51 percent in 1999, and almost 16 million more taxpayers received busy signals.''
Frankly, I have not had trouble getting through. although, I have had to wait as long as 15-20 minutes sometimes. Of course, I am using the special, deep, dark, secret phone numbers reserved only for tax professionals. Actually, all too often, I need to call one of the numbers on the notices you receive - and find myself sitting there far too long. This doesn't kill me - after all, think of the volume IRS is doing! They are the most successful venture on this continent - a captive client base; millions of customers - all calling at once. When you take the volume of calls into account, don't you ever wonder how they get to them all? Amazes me.
ACCURACY OF IRS RESPONSES TO TAXPAYERS - see the report - ''Taxpayers who called the IRS with tax law questions during the 1999 Filing Season received correct answers only 72 percent of the time, as compared to 79 percent last year (1998).''
On the other hand, there is NO excuse for this. If IRS is going to staff their phones, they cannot provide incorrect information at all. And what really steams me is - if you get your information from an IRS employee on IRS's phone lines, YOU are held responsible if the information IRS has provided is wrong.
What's especially odd is, IRS had not been able to hire people for quite some time, when this report was done (1999). So all the people on the phones had been with IRS for at least two years, probably more. Why aren't they better trained? Every time I call in,
I find the officials I'm trying to reach are in a class. Why aren't the phone staff in classes and updates, too?
And don't rely on IRS's publications, either. It will hearten you to learn - IRS long ago announced that if there are errors in the publications that IRS writes and distributes - YOU are still responsible for getting it right. You cannot rely on their written word.
With all of this bad information being handed out, the average taxpayer who relied on this generally gets into trouble. Who can they turn to - if they can't afford to hire a tax professional?
Well, there is a separate part of the Treasury Department that runs parallel to IRS. They work with IRS files and records, but do not report to IRS Directors or managers. They Do, however, report to Congress. The Taxpayers' Advocate group, is supposed to be the taxpayer's best line of defense when meeting a brick wall at IRS - so the TIGTA report is quite disturbing: The National Taxpayer Advocate Can Improve the Service Provided to Taxpayers. See report.
In essence, it says that instead of getting back to taxpayers and their representatives in 7 days, they're taking over a month. And the Advocate isn't putting quick holds on collections actions - they are leaving taxpayers exposed for weeks or over a month. And in nearly half the cases, the Advocate didn't deal with all the issues brought to them - so the taxpayer still had unresolved matters, often, even if they didn't know it.
One of the reasons this is so distressing is that this office was designed to help taxpayers in trouble - even if they couldn't afford high-priced help. It seems to me that the Advocate's office is seriously under-funded or understaffed. I cannot imagine that they are untrained - the Advocates I have met have been some of the most competent and concerned folks at Treasury. This really needs to be fixed.Where does that leave you - taxpayer? Frankly, if you have any issues that are new or complex to you - see a tax pro. Sure, you'll have to pay for the consultation. But you get three great benefits from this:
- The fee is tax deductible.
- You'll probably get really good advice.
- If your tax pro is wrong - IRS says you CAN rely on that. Your penalties will generally be waived if it turns out the advice was wrong.
- The advice and guidance you get will probably save you a bundle in taxes - either for the current year or the future.
Get help. Do things right. Take care of your own tax health.
Copyright © 2001, Eva Rosenberg
Initially Printed March 22, 2001