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.”
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.
In this week’s National Taxpayer Advocate blog, I highlight my concerns with the IRS Free File program, which I also discussed in my 2018 Annual Report to Congress and my recent testimony before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight. I also describe my personal experience using Free Fillable Forms and make some recommendations for improving these products. This is a bit of a long post, but the topic requires some background discussion to understand how we got to where we are today.
The IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 directed the IRS to set a goal of increasing the e-file rate to at least 80 percent by 2007. In 2002, the IRS entered into an agreement with a consortium of tax software companies, known as Free File, Inc. (FFI), under which the companies would provide free tax return software to a certain percentage of U.S. taxpayers, and in exchange, the IRS would not compete with these companies by providing its own software to taxpayers. The agreement has been renewed at regular intervals, and for at least the past decade, the agreement has provided that the consortium would make free tax return software available for 70 percent of taxpayers (currently, about 105 million), particularly focusing on increasing access for economically disadvantaged and underserved communities, as measured by adjusted gross income.
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.
In my last blog, I discussed issues that arose during the 2018 filing season that contributed to the delay of taxpayers’ refunds when those taxpayers’ returns were selected into the non-IDT refund fraud program, including:
- timing issues with the matching of third-party information;
- how the system does not consider how third-party information would affect a taxpayer’s refund, and
- how the pre-refund wage verification program’s case management system, Electronic Fraud Detection System (EFDS), had to have third-party information uploaded manually instead of systemically.
These issues resulted in an unprecedented increase in Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) case receipts in 2018 as more affected taxpayers sought TAS assistance.
Over the years, I have expressed significant concern with the continuing erosion of taxpayers’ right to appeal an IRS decision in an independent forum. (IRC § 7803(a)(3)). Of late, one of the major challenges to this right and to the independence of Appeals has been Appeals’ express desire to include IRS Counsel and Compliance in conferences regardless of whether taxpayers consent to this expanded participation. I have blogged about this before and also raised the subject in my Fiscal Year 2019 Objectives Report to Congress. Nevertheless, the issue continues to exist and I believe it is important to revisit the concerns and suggest a transparent, data-driven way forward.
In October 2016, Appeals revised its Internal Revenue Manual (IRM) guidance to encourage the inclusion of Counsel and Compliance in conferences (IRM 126.96.36.199.4). Beyond my own misgivings, this emphasis generated substantial uneasiness within the tax practitioner community.
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.
Recently, the IRS provided its response to my Most Serious Problem addressing EITC issues in the 2017 Annual Report to Congress. I want to reiterate my recommendation that the IRS should provide a dedicated toll-free Extra Help telephone line for EITC taxpayers.I’ve made similar recommendations here, here, and here. The IRS has not agreed to implement my recommendation. Instead, the IRS responded to my latest recommendation by saying, in part: Read More
My June Report to Congress included an Area of Focus entitled: “The IRS Has Expanded Its Math Error Authority, Reducing Due Process for Vulnerable Taxpayers, Without Legislation and Without Seeking Public Comments.” The post-processing math error issue came up after a report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) said the IRS improperly paid refundable credits, including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), to those filing 2016 returns with taxpayer identification numbers (TINs) (e.g., Social Security Numbers) that were issued after the due date of the returns. TINs are long strings of numbers that can easily contain typos. The IRS committed to “evaluate this population for inclusion in the appropriate post-refund treatment program.” Perhaps because it costs $1.50 to resolve an erroneous EITC claim using automated math error authority (MEA) compared to $278 for an audit (according to TIGTA), the Wage and Investment Division (W&I) planned to use MEA to recover these credits in 2018.
I asked Counsel about the legality of using MEA to disallow credits long after the IRS had processed the returns (i.e., post-processing) and paid them. Counsel responded on April 10, 2018, with a Program Manager Technical Advice (PMTA) that approved the practice (here). It concluded there were no due process concerns. This blog explores the due process that the government may be constitutionally required to provide before recovering EITC from those who depend on it to survive.
The IRS offers a First Time Abatement (FTA) program that is intended to be, and often is, taxpayer-favorable. Nevertheless, as currently implemented, the FTA sometimes overrides the reasonable cause abatement and disadvantages taxpayers. The scope of this problem will increase dramatically if the IRS follows through with its current proposal to automatically apply the FTA. In this week’s blog, I will focus on how this systemic FTA would be implemented, how it would essentially write the reasonable cause abatement out of the law, and how a revised approach would allow taxpayers to enjoy the intended benefits of both abatements.
The First Time Abatement Provides an Important Mechanism for Penalty Relief
Occasionally, otherwise-compliant taxpayers make good faith mistakes regarding the filing of their tax return or payment of their tax obligations. Further, not all of these errors are eligible for the reasonable cause abatement provided by Internal Revenue Code (IRC) §§ 6651(a) and 6656(a). In my 2001 Annual Report to Congress, I provided the following example of this problem:
My last blog on passport issues discussed the IRS’s continued refusal to exclude already open TAS cases from passport certification and my efforts to advocate for these taxpayers in the form of almost 800 Taxpayer Assistance Orders (TAOs) and a Taxpayer Advocate Directive that I plan to further elevate to the Commissioner. Today, I want to provide an update on TAS cases and discuss some examples that show how the IRS’s refusal to provide a stand-alone notice prior to certification harms taxpayers.
Internal Revenue Code (IRC) § 7345 authorizes the IRS to certify a taxpayer’s seriously delinquent tax debt to the Department of State for the purposes of passport denial, limitation, or revocation. A seriously delinquent tax debt is an assessed, individual tax liability exceeding $51,000 (adjusted for inflation) for which either a notice of federal tax lien has been filed or a levy has been made. The law requires only two forms of notice to taxpayers: language in Collection Due Process (CDP) hearing notices and a notice sent “contemporaneously” with the certification the IRS sends to the Department of State.
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.