Taxes are a drag, and they can sometimes seem unfair. Even worse, it usually seems like there's little we can do about it and little reason to be hopeful for positive change. Buck up, though -- because there is hope. The IRS is not out to wring every tax dollar from you that it can. It isn't unsympathetic to your concerns. In fact, within the IRS itself is our National Taxpayer Advocate, who has been fighting for us taxpayers.
Meet Nina Olson, heading the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) since 2001 . She's our National Taxpayer Advocate, but she's not the only one. She oversees a team of hundreds of taxpayer advocates and among her achievements is a new Taxpayer Bill of Rights that was introduced in 2014. Among the rights it recognizes are: the right to quality service, the right to pay no more than the correct amount of tax, the right to appeal an IRS decision in an independent forum, and the right to a fair and just tax system.
Help is available
The Taxpayer Advocate Service wants you to know the following:
- "We can help you resolve problems that you can't resolve with the IRS. And our service is free. Always try to resolve your problem with the IRS first, but if you can't, then come to the Taxpayer Advocate Service."
- "We help individuals, businesses, and exempt organizations. If you qualify for our help, your advocate will be with you at every turn and do everything possible."
- "You may be eligible for our help if your IRS problem is causing financial difficulty or you believe an IRS procedure just isn't working as it should."
The service has offices in every state and an extensive website. You can also call it at (877) 777-4778.
You can benefit a lot from the Taxpayer Advocate Service even if you never contact it -- because it's still fighting to improve your tax-related life.
Reporting to Congress
Olson regularly addresses Congress, pointing out problems with our tax system and making sensible recommendations. For example, in her 2015 objectives, Olson's areas of focus include tax-preparer fraud, developing standards for tax preparers, the IRS's funding crisis, and the fact that when the government shuts down and the IRS is temporarily closed, taxpayers' statutory rights are violated. For her 2016 report, she will be addressing topics such as glitches in the administration of taxes related to Obamacare and the need to hasten procedures for refunding victims of tax-return fraud.
Olson's 2015 report to Congress will likely be released early in 2016. You can get an idea of what to expect from her 2014 report, which offered many detailed observations and recommendations, such as the importance of codifying into law the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, so that it can have teeth and not be wishful thinking.
She also detailed the sorry state of affairs related to customer service:
- "Nearly 200 million Americans interact with the IRS each year, more than three times as many as any other federal agency. (Individuals file nearly 150 million returns, including about 50 million joint returns.) Because of the complexity of the tax code, large numbers of taxpayers turn to the IRS for assistance. The IRS typically receives more than 100 million telephone calls, 10 million letters, and 5 million visits at its walk-in sites from taxpayers each year."
- "The IRS is unlikely to answer even half the telephone calls it receives, and levels of service may average as low as 43%. Taxpayers who manage to get through are expected to wait on hold for 30 minutes on average and considerably longer at peak times."
Olson noted: "Taxpayers who need help are not getting it, and tax compliance is likely to suffer over the longer term if these problems are not quickly and decisively addressed."
Unfortunately, many of the Taxpayer Advocate's words go unheeded. In her 2013 report to Congress, for example, she noted that "The IRS desperately needs more funding to serve taxpayers and increase voluntary compliance." Instead, Congress has been cutting funding for the IRS repeatedly, which makes no sense at all, as it leaves the agency less able to serve taxpayers -- and less able to collect taxes due. In her 2013 report to Congress, the Taxpayer Advocate noted that for every dollar appropriated to the IRS in fiscal year 2013, it collected $255, adding, "If the chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company were told that each dollar allocated to his company's Accounts Receivable Department would generate multiple dollars in return, it is difficult to see how the CEO would keep his job if he chose not to provide the department with the funding it needed. Yet that is essentially what has been happening with respect to IRS funding for years."
Our tax code, approaching 4 million words, is complex and could use some improvement, while the IRS itself could be improved in many ways. One ray of hope for us all is that there's a Taxpayer Advocate Service working for us. As Nina Olson has aptly observed:
Taxpayer rights are central to voluntary compliance," the report says. "If taxpayers believe they are being treated, or can be treated, in an arbitrary and capricious manner, they will mistrust the system and be less likely to comply of their own volition. By contrast, taxpayers will be more likely to comply if they have confidence in the fairness and integrity of the system.
Thanks, Nina Olson -- and good luck!