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Archive for National Taxpayer Advocate

The National Taxpayer Advocate’s Remarks On The Role Of Trust And Taxpayer Advocate Service In Fostering Tax Compliance

Nina Olson Volume 1

Volume 1, which I present to you today, includes an analysis of the 2019 Filing Season, an assessment of the impact of the recent government shutdown on the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS), 12 Areas of Focus, and a discussion of TAS advocacy initiatives, casework, and research studies. Volume 2, IRS Responses and National Taxpayer Advocate’s Comments Regarding Most Serious Problems Identified in 2018 Annual Report to Congress, and Volume 3, Making the EITC Work for Taxpayers and the Government: Improving Administration and Protecting Taxpayer Rights, will be published next month.

Volume 2 will contain the IRS’s general responses to each of the administrative recommendations we identified in our 2018 Annual Report to Congress. Volume 3 will contain a comprehensive assessment of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and will make recommendations designed to increase the participation rate of eligible taxpayers and reduce overclaims by ineligible taxpayers.  During the spring, Professor Leslie Book of the Villanova School of Law, a leading EITC expert, served as a “professor in residence” with TAS, and Margot Crandall-Hollick, an EITC expert with the Congressional Research Service, worked with TAS on a detail.  Together with TAS’s EITC experts, including former Low Income Taxpayer Clinic attorneys and researchers, they conducted a broad review of existing EITC research and drafted a comprehensive set of recommendations to assist Congress and the IRS in improving the program.

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The National Taxpayer Advocate’s Remarks On The Role Of Trust and Taxpayer Advocate Service In Fostering Tax Compliance (Part 1)

Nina Olson Final Words Part1

Volume 1, which I present to you today, includes an analysis of the 2019 Filing Season, an assessment of the impact of the recent government shutdown on the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS), 12 Areas of Focus, and a discussion of TAS advocacy initiatives, casework, and research studies.

Volume 2, IRS Responses and National Taxpayer Advocate’s Comments Regarding Most Serious Problems Identified in 2018 Annual Report to Congress, and Volume 3, Making the EITC Work for Taxpayers and the Government: Improving Administration and Protecting Taxpayer Rights, will be published next month.

Volume 2 will contain the IRS’s general responses to each of the administrative recommendations we identified in our 2018 Annual Report to Congress. Volume 3 will contain a comprehensive assessment of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and will make recommendations designed to increase the participation rate of eligible taxpayers and reduce overclaims by ineligible taxpayers.  During the spring, Professor Leslie Book of the Villanova School of Law, a leading EITC expert, served as a “professor in residence” with TAS, and Margot Crandall-Hollick, an EITC expert with the Congressional Research Service, worked with TAS on a detail.  Together with TAS’s EITC experts, including former Low Income Taxpayer Clinic attorneys and researchers, they conducted a broad review of existing EITC research and drafted a comprehensive set of recommendations to assist Congress and the IRS in improving the program.

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Why We Should Repeal The Flora Rule Or Find Another Way To Give Taxpayers Who Cannot Pay The Same Access To Judicial Review As Those Who Can (Part 3 of 3)

Two weeks ago, I discussed how the Flora rule blocks access to judicial review by low income taxpayers and those subject to “assessable penalties.” Last week, I discussed why the policy justification for the Flora rule has faded and why the theoretical ability to petition other courts does not always provide real access to judicial review. In this week’s blog, I discuss the solutions that policymakers should consider. More details are available in my 2018 Annual Report to Congress.

Repeal The Flora Rule

Because Flora is obsolete, I agree with those who have suggested the Flora rule should be repealed (e.g., Steve Johnson here on p. 271). Such a repeal would allow taxpayers to file suit in district court or the U.S. Court of Federal Claims after paying a small fraction of the liability. If Congress prefers a more tailored approach, however, it should consider one or more of the following options:

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Why We Should Repeal The Flora Rule Or Find Another Way To Give Taxpayers Who Cannot Pay The Same Access To Judicial Review As Those Who Can (Part 2 of 3)

Nina Olson- Judicial Review Part 2

In the previous blog post, I discussed how the Flora rule harms low income taxpayers who were not part of the tax system when it was established and sometimes eliminates judicial review for those subject to “assessable penalties,” most of which also did not exist at the time. This week, I discuss the policy justification for the Flora rule, why it has faded, and why the theoretical ability to petition other courts does not provide real access to judicial review for some taxpayers.

The Justification For The Flora Rule Has Faded

As we discussed last week, in 1958 in Flora I and again in 1960 in Flora II, the U.S. Supreme Court held that taxpayers must have “fully paid” an assessment before filing suit in U.S. district court or the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. In Flora I the Court said a policy basis for the full payment rule was to protect the “public purse” and cited dicta in earlier decisions, such as Cheatham, which was decided in 1875. This dictum said the rule was needed to protect the very “existence of government” from a “hostile judiciary.” Although the Flora decisions did not repeat the “existence of government” rationale, it relied heavily on CheathamCheatham is cited seven times in Flora I and 20 times in Flora II.

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The IRS Is Not Doing Enough To Protect Taxpayers Facing Economic Hardship

The Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TBOR) grants taxpayers the rights to privacy and to a fair and just tax system. The Internal Revenue Service’s official explanation of these rights, in Publication 1, states in part: “Taxpayers have the right to expect that any IRS …enforcement action will comply with the law and be no more intrusive than necessary,” and “to expect the tax system to consider facts and circumstances that might affect their underlying liabilities, ability to pay, or ability to provide information timely.”

At the time the TBOR was codified in IRC § 7803(a), Congress had already created statutory remedies for violations of these rights, including protections to prevent individual taxpayers from experiencing economic hardship while owing a tax liability. For instance, under IRC § 6343(a)(1)(D), the IRS must release a levy if it determines that the levy is creating an economic hardship for the taxpayer. Treasury regulation § 301.6343-1(b)(4) explains that an economic hardship occurs when collection action will “cause an individual taxpayer to be unable to pay his or her reasonable basic living expenses.”

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IRS Examinations – The IRS Should Promote Voluntary Compliance And Minimize Taxpayer Burden In The Selection And Conduct Of Audits

National Taxpayer Advocate

In February of 2019, I released the 2018 Annual Report To Congress in which, among other things, I discuss the influence of tax audits on taxpayers’ attitudes and perceptions, and specifically focus on the three primary types of traditional or “real” IRS audits, which can occur through correspondence, at the taxpayer’s home or business, or at an IRS office. In my 2017 Annual Report to Congress and a related blog post around nine months ago, I described IRS audit rates and the distinction between “real” and “unreal” audits. This blog, however, provides an overview of traditional or “real” audit programs, along with some of my findings.

Why are IRS audits important?

The IRS is authorized to examine books, papers, records, or other data and take testimony to determine the correctness of any return and the liability of any person for tax under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) § 7602(a). The IRS’s primary purpose in selecting tax returns for examination or audit is to promote the highest degree of voluntary compliance. IRS audits are intended to detect and correct noncompliance of audited taxpayers, as well as create an environment to encourage non-audited taxpayers to comply voluntarily.

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IRS Has Made Some Improvements, Math Error Notices Continue To Be Unclear And Confusing, Thereby Undermining Taxpayer Rights And Increasing Taxpayer Burden

Nina Olson - Math Errors IRS

With the filing season in full operation, many taxpayers are receiving correspondence from the IRS that convey significant taxpayer rights and require taxpayers to take prompt action. In my April 3rd blog post, I discussed a Literature Review in my 2018 report to Congress that investigated how notices can be improved using insights from the available psychological, cognitive, and behavioral science research. As I noted, a major issue with current IRS notices is that many taxpayers have difficulty understanding them. They may be unsure about what the notice requires them to do, the steps they may need to take, or the rights they have to challenge the IRS’s determination in a notice. In this blog, I will focus on math error notice unclarity, which I identified as one of the Most Serious Problems.

What is the IRS’s math error authority?

Congress has granted the IRS “math error authority,” which allows the IRS to make certain summary adjustments to a taxpayer’s return. If the changes lead to a greater amount of tax, the IRS would make an assessment. These “math error” changes can be made when the IRS determines that the taxpayer has made a mathematical or clerical error that is obvious to fix by looking at the face of the return. The types of issues Congress has allowed to be resolved with math error authority have progressively increased over the years, as a result of IRS lobbying, with the IRS now making summary changes for more and more complex issues. A past TAS research study on math errors committed on individual tax returns found that some of these summary changes have led the IRS to incorrectly deny tax benefits to some taxpayers.

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The Adoption Of A Withholding Code And The Improvement of Free File Fillable Forms Would Streamline Tax Withholding And Reporting

Nina Olson- Streamline Withholding

In last week’s blog, I discussed the potential benefits arising from an expansion of the pay-as-you-earn (PAYE) tax system to incorporate additional income items, as well as credits and deductions.  Such a step would require substantial systemic adjustments and in the recent Annual Report to Congress I recommended that Congress direct the Treasury Department to consult with the IRS and TAS to analyze and report on the feasibility of and steps necessary for expanding withholding at source to encompass seven of the most common types of income. This broader PAYE coverage on the income side could be a precursor to the incorporation of credits and deductions into the PAYE system such that the exact amount of annual tax liability would be collected throughout the course of the year, leaving no subsequent taxes to pay or refunds to collect.

In the meantime, two additional innovations could be considered that would improve the collection of tax at source and streamline the reporting of tax liabilities at year end. As I discussed in a recent blog, redesign of the Form W-4, Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate, has generated a range of concerns, including complexity, taxpayer burden, and employee privacy. These issues arise because the U.S. system requires employees to navigate an often-confusing and difficult process to provide employers with their personal information, including other sources of income and marital status, so that the correct amount of tax can be withheld as discussed in TAS’s in-depth 2018 study. Some other countries, such as New Zealand, however, follow an alternative course that could be beneficial for the U.S.

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NTA: The IRS Should Redesign Its Notices Using Psychological, Cognitive, And Behavioral Science Insights To Protect Taxpayer Rights, Enhance Taxpayer Understanding, And Reduce Taxpayer Burden

National Taxpayer Advocate

With the filing season in full operation, many taxpayers are receiving correspondence from the IRS that convey significant taxpayer rights and require taxpayers to take prompt action. As part of my recently released Annual Report to Congress, I included a Literature Review that investigated how notices can be improved using insights from the available psychological, cognitive, and behavioral science research. A major issue with current IRS notices is that many taxpayers have difficulty understanding them. They may be unsure about what the notice requires them to do, the steps they may need to take, or the rights they have to challenge the IRS’s determination in a notice. This, in part, is because the design of IRS notices does not take into account the findings of available literature and research regarding effective notice design.

Nor are IRS notices designed from a taxpayer rights perspective, which can prevent taxpayers from learning about or exercising their rights—for example, by relegating the segment on their rights to the last page of the notice, which they are least likely to read. In fact, notices are often designed with the goal of increasing revenue rather than adequately informing taxpayers of their rights. In the three Most Serious Problems on notices included in my 2018 Annual Report to Congress (herehere, and here), I provide both critiques of current IRS notices and suggestions for improvement. One of those suggestions is for the IRS to improve taxpayer understanding and decrease taxpayer burden by redesigning its notices using psychological, cognitive, and behavioral science insights. These suggestions are summarized below.

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IRS Efforts To Improve The EITC Improper Payment Rate Harm Taxpayers

Nina Olson- EITC

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is one of the primary forms of public assistance for low income working taxpayers.  However, the EITC is associated with a high improper payment rate.  According to the Treasury Department’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 Agency Financial Report, the FY 2018 EITC improper payment rate is approximately 25 percent.  A principal cause of the EITC improper payment rate is the complexity of the rules for claiming EITC, as reported by the Department of Treasury here and here.  While I recognize the importance of tracking and minimizing improper payments, I am concerned that the focus on “a number” masks both the successes and challenges in improving EITC compliance.  In fact, EITC improper payment estimates are based on audits of tax years four years in the past and do not reflect the most recent remedial measures.  Additionally, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) reports that the EITC improper payment rate does not take into account that for every dollar of EITC improper payments, 40 cents of EITC went unclaimed by taxpayers who appear to be eligible for the credit.

In this year’s Annual Report to Congress I reported that IRS actions to reduce the EITC improper payment rate are not sufficiently proactive and may unnecessarily burden taxpayers.  For instance, despite the acknowledged complexity of the rules for claiming EITC as a cause of improper EITC claims, IRS and Treasury legislative proposals to address EITC improper payments center on enforcement measures rather than on simplification.

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The IRS Office Of Chief Counsel Is Using Email To Avoid Disclosure Of Program Manager Technical Advice

Nina Olson On The Office Of Chief Counsel

This blog highlights problems with the transparency of the IRS Office of Chief Counsel (OCC), which I discussed in the 2018 Annual Report to Congress (ARC).  I also discussed transparency in the 2006 (p.10), 2007 (p.124), 2010, and 2011 (p. 380) Annual Reports, and in the Fiscal Year Objectives Reports in 2008 (p. xxi) and 2018.

A big part of the OCC’s most recent transparency problem is that it allows its attorneys to avoid disclosure of advice to IRS program managers (called Program Manager Technical Advice or PMTA), by issuing the advice as an email, rather than a memo.  Although I do not know when the OCC created this loophole, the number of PMTA disclosures has been falling in recent years (as shown below).  Compounding the problem is that the OCC has not issued any written guidance describing what must be disclosed as PMTA and most of OCC’s attorneys have not received training on that topic in the last few years.  In addition, the OCC has no systems to monitor whether all PMTAs are timely identified, processed as PMTAs, and disclosed.

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NTA: Recommends Taxpayers Vote On How Tax Dollars Are Spent

Nina Olson - Vote How Tax Dollars Are Spent
Require The IRS To Provide TaxPayers With A “Receipt” Showing How Their Tax Dollars Are Spent

Present Law IRC § 7523 requires the IRS to provide taxpayers with very basic information regarding federal taxes and federal spending. Specifically, the IRS is required to include pie-shaped graphs in its instructions for Forms 1040, 1040A, and 1040EZ showing the relative sizes of major budget outlay categories and major income categories. In the 2017 Form 1040 instructions booklet, the IRS published two graphs on page 103 with data from fiscal year (FY) 2016.

Reasons For Change

IRC § 7523 was enacted for tax years beginning after 1990. The purpose of the statute—namely, to help taxpayers understand the connection between the taxes they pay and the benefits they receive—is important, and it is likely that some taxpayers who perceive that connection will be more compliant with their tax obligations. However, the National Taxpayer Advocate believes the information required by IRC § 7523 is too cursory to achieve its objective. It would be more helpful to provide each taxpayer with personalized information regarding the taxpayer’s own contributions, such as the taxpayer’s marginal tax rate, effective tax rate, and tax benefits claimed.

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