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Archive for Nina Olson

National Taxpayer Advocate Report: Landmark Tax Legislation

Nina Olson, Landmark Tax Legislation

Twenty years ago this week, the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 was enacted. This landmark legislation created significant taxpayer rights – including the office of the National Taxpayer Advocate and Local Taxpayer Advocate offices, Low Income Taxpayer Clinics (more on that in next week’s blog); Collection Due Process hearings (the first time taxpayers had meaningful access to courts to challenge the appropriateness of IRS lien and levy actions), “innocent spouse” relief expansion to provide for separate liability and equitable relief; expansion of offer in compromise relief on grounds of economic hardship, equity, and public policy; protection against lifestyle and repetitive audits. Some provisions are only now being clarified, as in the Graev and Chai line of cases. Other provisions still have not been properly implemented, such as the requirement that a specific employee’s name, phone number, and unique identifying number be placed on manually-generated correspondence. Nevertheless, RRA 98 changed tax administration as we know it, and, in my opinion, moved the United States in the forefront of taxpayer protections.

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The National Taxpayer Advocate Responds To Private Debt Collectors’ Contentions

Nina Olson, IRS Use Of Debt Collectors

Last week, I returned from vacation to read a press release from a newly formed organization consisting of private debt collection (PDC) agencies working IRS accounts. “Nina Olsen [sic] has consistently made false and misleading claims about the IRS and its Private Debt Collection Program to advance her own political agenda,” the organization’s spokesperson asserted.

While I don’t often take the time to respond to ad personam attacks, this one deals with a core IRS program, so I think it deserves a response – particularly given some of the questionable claims it made.

It’s no secret that I believe the collection of taxes is a core governmental function that should not be outsourced to for-profit businesses that are paid on commission. I have written about the use of private collection agencies (PCAs) repeatedly in my annual reports to Congress and elsewhere. But it is worth taking a moment to summarize the basis of my concerns. While others have investigated the practices used by private collection agencies, my focus has been on IRS policies and IRS administration of the statutory program.

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National Taxpayer Advocate: 2019 Objectives Report To Congress

Nina Olson, 2019 Taxpayer Advocate Objective

The advocate states in the current environment, it is critical for the IRS to direct its resources where they have the greatest positive effect on achieving tax compliance, particularly voluntary tax compliance.  Over the long run, voluntary compliance is the least expensive form of compliance to maintain.  It is also the least burdensome from the taxpayer’s perspective.  Importantly, voluntary tax compliance is heavily linked to customer service and the customer experience.

The President’s Management Agenda for 2018 states: “Federal customers . . . deserve a customer experience that compares to – or exceeds – that of leading private sector organizations, yet most Federal services lag behind the private sector.”  The Agenda identifies several Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Goals, including CAP Goal 1: Modernize IT to Increase Productivity and Security, and CAP Goal 4: Improving Customer Experience with Federal Services.  The Agenda notes that “the 2016 American Consumer [sic] Satisfaction Index and the 2017 Forrester Federal Customer Experience Index show that, on average, Government services lag nine percentage points behind the private sector.” How do the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) and the Forrester Federal Customer Experience Index assess the IRS’s customer service relative to other federal agencies and the private sector? The American Customer Satisfaction Index ranks the Treasury Department 12 out of 13 Federal Departments and says the Treasury Department’s score is effectively an IRS score because most citizens make use of Treasury services via the [IRS] tax-filing process.

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NTA: Real Vs. Unreal Audits And Why This Distinction Matters

Nina Olson, Real Vs. Unreal Tax Audits

Around five months ago, in my 2017 Annual Report to Congress, I identified IRS audit rates and the distinction between “real” and “unreal” audits, as the fourth Most Serious Problem facing taxpayers. I had previously written about this topic in my 2011 and 2016 Annual Reports to Congress, and discussed it in a blog post six years ago.

So, what’s the deal with “real vs. “unreal” audits and why should you care?  I need to first give you a little background. Under section 7602 of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), the IRS has the authority to examine any books, papers, records, or other data that may be relevant to ascertain the correctness of any return. I call these types of examinations, which can occur through correspondence, at the taxpayer’s home or business, or at an IRS office, “real” or traditional audits.

However, “real” audits don’t quite end the story. The IRS has several other types of compliance contacts with taxpayers that it does not consider to be “real” audits. These types of contacts, which I call “unreal” audits, include math error corrections, Automated Underreporter (AUR) (a document matching program), identity and wage verification, and Automated Substitute for Return (ASFR) (a non-filer program). Why are these types of contacts, which constitute the majority of IRS compliance contacts, important?  First of all, they require taxpayers to provide documentation or information to the IRS and may feel very much like a “real” examination to taxpayers. More importantly, “unreal” audits lack taxpayer protections typically found in “real” audits, such as the opportunity to generally seek an administrative review with the IRS Office of Appeals (Appeals) or the statutory prohibition against repeat examinations. And in case you are curious, the IRS is planning for the increased use of “unreal” audits through automated means with its “Future State” Initiative.

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National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson Reports On The IRS Challenges Implementing Tax Cuts And Jobs Act

Nina Olson, Report on Tax Cuts And Jobs Act

National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) Nina E. Olson today released her mid-year report to Congress that presents a review of the 2018 Filing Season, identifies issues the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) will address during the upcoming fiscal year, and contains IRS responses to the 100 administrative recommendations the NTA made in her 2017 Annual Report to Congress.

The most significant challenge the IRS faces in the upcoming year is implementing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA). Olson expresses confidence that the IRS will implement the law successfully. “I have no doubt the IRS will deliver what it has been asked to do,” she writes.

However, she reiterates her concern that IRS funding reductions have undermined the agency’s ability to provide high-quality taxpayer service and modernize its information technology infrastructure. The report finds that IRS funding has been reduced by 20 percent since fiscal year (FY) 2010. “Because of these reductions, the IRS doesn’t have enough employees to provide basic taxpayer service.”

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The IRS Has Not Adjusted Its Private Debt Collection Initiative To Minimize Harm To Vulnerable Taxpayers

Nina Olson, National Taxpayer Advocate

Since the IRS implemented the private debt collection (PDC) initiative last year, I have been concerned that taxpayers whose debts are assigned to private collection agencies (PCAs) will make payments even when they are likely in economic hardship – that is, they are unable to pay their basic living expenses. As discussed in my 2017 Annual Report to Congress, this is exactly what has been happening. The recent returns of approximately 4,100 taxpayers who made payments to the IRS after their debts were assigned to PCAs through September 28, 2017 show:

  • 28 percent had incomes below $20,000;
  • 19 percent had incomes below the federal poverty level; and
  • 44 percent had incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

As a refresher, the IRS uses 250 percent of the federal poverty level as a proxy for economic hardship in several situations, such as in administering the Federal Payment Levy Program (FPLP). FPLP is an automated system the IRS uses to match its records against those of the government’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service to identify taxpayers with unpaid tax liabilities who receive certain payments from the federal government. IRC § 6331(h) allows the IRS to issue continuous levies for up to 15 percent of federal payments due to these taxpayers who have unpaid federal liabilities. As explained in my 2014 Annual Report to Congress, the IRS excluded Social Security recipients whose incomes were below 250 percent of the federal poverty level after a 2008 TAS research study demonstrated that the FPLP program levied on taxpayers who were experiencing economic hardship.

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Statement Of Nina Olson – National Taxpayer Advocate Joint Hearing On Continued Oversight Over The IRS

Nina Olsen National Taxpayer Advocate

Thank you for inviting me to testify at your hearing today on IRS operations. As you know, I lead the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS), an independent organization within the IRS that advocates for taxpayers. TAS has two main functions – “case advocacy” and “systemic advocacy.” In most years our case advocacy operations
assist more than 200,000 taxpayers in resolving account problems with the IRS.2 On the systemic side, TAS identifies problems that are harming groups of taxpayers, and we make administrative and legislative recommendations to mitigate those problems.
By statute, I am required to submit two annual reports to the congressional tax-writing committees each year, and I describe, and make recommendations to mitigate, the “most serious problems” facing taxpayers in my December 31 report.

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The Flood That Didn’t Materialize When The IRS Removed The Two-Year Period For Requesting Equitable Innocent Spouse Relief And Granted Relief More Frequently

Innocent spouse relief, which has been available under IRC § 6015 since 1998 (and was available prior to that, in a more limited way, under IRC § 6015(e)), provides three avenues of relief. Section 6015(b) provides “traditional” relief for deficiencies.

Section 6015(c) also provides relief for deficiencies for certain spouses who are divorced, separated, widowed, or not living together, by allocating the liability between the spouses. Section 6015(f) provides “equitable” relief from both deficiencies and underpayments, but only applies if a taxpayer is not eligible for relief under IRC § 6015(b) or (c).

As I reported in my 2001 Annual Report to Congress, the IRS received 46,619 claims for innocent spouse relief in fiscal year (FY) 1999 (i.e., from October 1, 1998, to September 30, 1999). The IRS received 54,402 claims for relief in FY 2000.

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Taxpayer Advocate Service Survey Confirms Need To Maintain And Enhance A Robust Omni-Channel Taxpayer Service Strategy

Nina Olson, National Taxpayer Advocate, Tax Blog, Washington D.C., USA, TaxConnections

In my most recent Annual Report to Congress, I published a study in support of the Service Priorities Project (SPP), a joint effort between Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) and IRS Wage & Investment (W&I). The goal of the SPP is to produce a matrix to help the IRS identify where to allocate its taxpayer service resources. To assist the IRS in determining service priorities, the matrix presents data on taxpayer needs and preferences as well as more traditional IRS “efficiency” concerns. While W&I initially worked with TAS in the development of the SPP, ultimately I felt that the additions to the Taxpayer Experience Survey did not address the missing data needed to complete the SPP matrix. I directed TAS Research to develop a study and fill in the gaps of the SPP. The result, A Further Exploration of Taxpayers’ Varying Abilities and Attitudes Toward IRS Options for Fulfilling Common Taxpayer Needs, revealed several areas that I’d like to highlight today. Read more

2018 Tax Forums Will Feature TAS Seminars, Case Resolution Program

Nina Olson, Tax Blog, Tax Advocate, Washington D.C. USA, TaxConnections

Each year the IRS sponsors the Nationwide Tax Forums, a three-day series of tax education and networking conferences for tax professionals in cities around the country. These events feature the latest information from the IRS, news about tax law changes, the chance to meet with software vendors, and the opportunity to attend nearly 50 seminars presented by IRS employees and members of professional associations.

At this year’s Forums, Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) will present a series of seminars, oversee the Case Resolution Program, and host two focus groups. TAS’s seminars include: Read more

Effective Use Of The Offer In Compromise (OIC) Program Will Save Valuable IRS Resources While Bringing Finality To Taxpayers

Nina Olson, Washington D.C., USA, TaxConnections

When a taxpayer can’t afford to pay a tax liability in full, Internal Revenue Code (IRC) § 7122 authorizes the IRS to accept less than the full amount due in the form of an offer in compromise (OIC). As a condition of acceptance for an OIC, the taxpayer must agree to remain compliant with his or her filing and paying requirements for the five years following the acceptance of the OIC. So, although the IRS agrees to settle a tax debt for less than the full amount due, the IRS secures future filing and payment compliance for the next five years, hopefully developing better taxpayer habits, while also collecting an amount that it is unlikely to collect otherwise. On the other hand, the taxpayer is no longer saddled with a debt that cannot be satisfied in full. Read more

What Is Wrong With IRS User Fees?

Nina Olson, Tax Advocate, Tax Blog, Washington D.C., USA, TaxConnections

The IRS has been increasing user fees to fund its operations. It recently increased or proposed to increase a wide range of fees including the fees for installment agreements (IAs)offers-in-compromise (OICs)pre-filing agreements (PFAs)private letter rulings (PLRs), and special enrollment examinations (SEE). I raised concerns about these increases in my 2015 and 2017 Annual Reports to Congress.

On Feb. 9, 2018, Congress enacted the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-123), which addresses concerns about the IRS’s largest fee revenue generator – the IA fee increases. The law prevents the IRS from increasing the IA fee again without legislation. It also requires the IRS to waive or refund the fee for taxpayers with income below 250 percent of the federal poverty level who authorize the IRS to directly debit the IA payments (DDIA) from a bank account or who cannot set up a DDIA (e.g., because they do not have a bank account). This legislation suggests that Congress shares some of my concerns. This blog summarizes our concerns. Read more

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