Fill­ing a void left by IRS bud­get cuts

Com­mu­nity clin­ics step in to pro­vide help for tax­pay­ers who have ques­tions.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Gail Marks Jarvis gmark­s­jarvis@tribpub.com

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.

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