Filling a void left by IRS budget cuts
Community clinics step in to provide help for taxpayers who have questions.
If you’re still trying to figure out your taxes, just hope that you don’t have any questions.
If you need help and try to call the Internal Revenue Service, you will probably wait on the phone for at least 30 minutes and then fail to get much of an answer.
The IRS has been slashing its costs. In an ironic twist for people who want to pay less in taxes, the government has been trying to save money by cutting help for taxpayers. As a result, taxpayers will be more likely to make mistakes and potentially pay more in penalties for their missteps.
A scathing report to Congress from the government’s Taxpayer Advocate Service says, “We are deeply concerned that taxpayers are receiving markedly less assistance from the IRS now than at any time in recent history.” Only half of people calling the IRS will get their calls answered.
“Without adequate support, many taxpayers will be frustrated, some will make potentially costly mistakes, and others will incur higher compliance costs when forced to seek information and assistance from tax professionals that the IRS previously provided for free,” the report said.
It’s not merely individuals who aren’t getting timely help on the phone. If you are struggling with a difficult question and hire a tax preparer, the professional will also face a long wait on the phone if clarification from the IRS is needed, according to the report. So that also will add expenses. Tax preparers often charge for the time they spend doing your taxes, including the time spent waiting for the IRS on the telephone.
The report notes that more than 100 million taxpayers attempt to reach the IRS by phone each year, and the IRS estimates that it will be able to answer only about 50% of the calls. That’s in contrast to the best year, 2004, when the IRS answered 87% of calls and wait times were 2.5 minutes.
Not only has telephone help been scaled way back, but last year the IRS discontinued a longtime practice of preparing tax returns for hundreds of thousands of low-income, elderly and disabled taxpayers who sought assistance.
Under recent changes, the report said, the IRS answers only basic questions on the telephone. The report noted that last year the IRS declared more complex questions would be “out of scope.”
The Taxpayer Advocate Service told Congress that the risk for the U.S. government could be that people will be frustrated and simply not do their taxes. Still, the IRS does inflict harsh penalties on people who don’t file tax returns.
Although the IRS has cut back telephone help, there are still clinics in communities where individuals can get help with tax returns.
AARP offers help to seniors at multiple locations and has added sites where there’s a concentration of lower-income taxpayers, spokeswoman Heather Heppner said. AARP also has expanded hours of service and days to accommodate a larger number of taxpayers seeking service and will serve low- to moderateincome people regardless of their age, she said.
To find a site, go to AARP.org/TaxAide or call 888-227-7669. Because sites open and close each year, check before going to a location you’ve visited previously.
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance programs also provide help to low- and moderate-income people, the elderly and disabled, plus non-English speakers. Other organizations such as the United Way and volunteers give individuals help preparing their tax returns. Tax Counseling for the Elderly caters to people over 60 but will help all taxpayers.
Find help at the IRS website under the topic “Get free tax preparation help.” Review the documents you will need and make an appointment, or call 800-906-9887.
If you can handle a computer, the easiest way to do your taxes at home and avoid mistakes is to use the free tax software offered by the IRS to people with incomes less than $60,000. See the “Free File” program at irs.gov.
People with incomes more than $60,000 can make tax preparation easy on themselves by buying software such as TurboTax or TaxAct.
The Taxpayer Advocate Service was created by Congress to assist taxpayers having problems with the IRS and offers clinics for those with disputes on issues such as audits. Visit www.irs.gov/Advocate/LowIncome-Taxpayer-Clinics or call 877-777-4778.