Taxpayer clinics help fill void left by IRS budget cuts
Just hope you don’t have any questions when you try to figure out your taxes this year.
If you need help and try to call the IRS, 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 this month 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 telephone each year, and the IRS estimates that it only will be able to answer about 50 percent of the calls. That’s in contrast to the best year, 2004, when the IRS answered 87 percent 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 long-time practice of preparing tax returns for hundreds of thousands of low-income, elderly and disabled taxpayers who sought assistance in offices with IRS help.
Under recent changes, the report said, the IRS only answers “basic” questions on the telephone. The report notes 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.
While 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 is adding new sites where there’s a concentration of lower-income taxpayers, said Chicago AARP spokeswoman Heather Heppner. AARP is also expanding hours of service and days to accommodate a larger number of taxpayers seeking service and will serve low- to moderate-income people regardless of their age, she said.
To find a site, go to AARP.org/TaxAide or call (888) 227-7669. Because sites are opened and closed each year, check before going to a location you’ve visited previously and make an appointment.
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 cater to people over 60 but will help all taxpayers; especially with retirement or pension related questions. Find help here. 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 get your taxes done at home and avoid mistakes is to use the free tax software offered to people with income less than $60,000 through irs.gov. See the Free File program here. People with incomes above $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/Low-Income-Taxpayer-Clinics or call (877) 777-4778.
Gail MarksJarvis is a personal finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of “Saving for Retirement Without Living Like a Pauper or Winning the Lottery.”