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Archive for January, 2013

Choosing Which Form to File

January 31st, 2013

IRS e-file makes it easy for taxpayers to choose which tax form to file. Tax software automatically chooses the best form for your particular situation. Most people e-file these days, but if you prefer taking pen to paper, the IRS has some tips to help you choose the right form.

Taxpayers who choose to file a paper tax return should know that the IRS no longer mails paper tax packages. The quickest way to get forms and instructions is by visiting the IRS website at IRS.gov. You can also order forms and have them mailed to you by calling the IRS forms line at 1-800-TAX-FORM (829-3676). You may also pick up tax forms from a local IRS office, and some libraries and post offices carry tax forms.

Here are some tips that will help paper tax return filers choose the best tax form for their situation.

You can generally use the 1040EZ if:

  • Your taxable income is below $100,000;
  • Your filing status is single or married filing jointly;
  • You are not claiming any dependents; and

If you can’t use Form 1040EZ, you may qualify to use the 1040A if:

  • Your taxable income is below $100,000;
  • You have capital gain distributions;
  • You claim certain tax credits; and

You claim adjustments to income for IRA contributions and student loan interest.

If you cannot use the 1040EZ or the 1040A, you’ll probably need to file using the 1040. The reasons you must use the 1040 include:

  • Your taxable income is $100,000 or more;
  • You claim itemized deductions;
  • You are reporting self-employment income; and

IRS Publication 17, Your Federal Income Tax, provides helpful information about which form is best for you.

Access to IRS forms and instructions or information about e-filing, including IRS Free File, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week on IRS.gov. Tax products often appear online well before they are available on paper. You’ll find downloadable tax products on IRS.gov by clicking on the “Forms and Pubs” link on the Home page.

Courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service.

Five Good Reasons to E-file Your Tax Return

January 30th, 2013

If you haven’t tried IRS e-file before, now is the time. Most taxpayers – more than 80 percent – file electronically. The IRS has processed more than 1 billion individual tax returns safely and securely since the nationwide debut of electronic filing in 1990. Fewer people file a paper tax return every year. Here are five good reasons to e-file your tax return:

1. Accurate and complete. E-file is the best way to file an accurate and complete tax return. Tax returns that are incomplete or include errors take longer to process.

2. Safe and secure. Tax preparers and software companies who e-file must meet strict guidelines and provide the best in encryption technology. You receive an acknowledgement within 48 hours that the IRS received your tax return. If the IRS does not accept your tax return, you will receive notification and can quickly correct your return and resubmit it.

3. Faster refunds. An e-filed tax return usually means a faster refund compared to a paper return. The IRS issues most refunds in less than 21 days. If you choose direct deposit, your refund goes directly into your bank account. Combining e-file with direct deposit is the fastest way to get your refund. About three out of four taxpayers who file receive a tax refund. Last year the average refund was about $2,700.

4. Payment options. If you owe tax, you can e-file early and set an automatic payment date anytime on or before the April 15 due date. You can pay by check or money order, by debit or credit card, or by transferring funds electronically from your bank account.

5. It’s easy. You can e-file on your own through IRS Free File, the free tax preparation and e-filing service available exclusively at IRS.gov. You can also use commercial tax preparation software or ask your tax preparer to e-file your return. And, if you qualify, IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and Tax Counseling for the Elderly partners will e-file your return for free.

Courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service.

Check Your Eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit

January 25th, 2013

The Earned Income Tax Credit has made the lives of working people a little easier since 1975. EITC can be a boost for workers who earned $50,270 or less in 2012. Yet the IRS estimates that one out of five eligible taxpayers fails to claim their EITC each year. The IRS wants everyone who is eligible for the credit to get the credit that they’ve earned.

Here are the top five things the IRS wants you to know about this credit.

1. EITC is valuable.  The EITC not only reduces the federal tax you owe, but could result in a refund. You base the amount of EITC on your earned income and the number of qualifying children in your household. The average credit was around $2,200 last year. If you qualify, the credit could be worth up to $5,891.

2. Review your eligibility.  If your financial, marital or parental situations change from year to year, you should review the EITC eligibility rules. Just because you didn’t qualify last year doesn’t mean you won’t this year.

3. File your return.  If you are eligible for the EITC, you must file a federal income tax return to claim the credit – even if you are not otherwise required to file. Remember to include Schedule EIC, Earned Income Credit, when you file your Form 1040. If you file Form 1040A, use the EIC worksheet and keep it for your records. If you use IRS e-file to prepare and file your tax return, the software will guide you and not let you forget this important step. E-file does the work and figures your EITC for you!

4. Know the qualifications.  You should understand the qualifications for EITC before claiming it, including:

    • You do not qualify for EITC if your tax filing status is Married Filing Separately.
    • You must have a valid Social Security number for yourself, your spouse – if filing a joint tax return – and any qualifying child listed on Schedule EIC.
    • You must have earned income. You have earned income if you are paid wages, you are self-employed, you have income from farming or you receive disability income.
    • Married couples and single people without children may qualify. If you do not have qualifying children, you must also meet age and residency requirements as well as dependency rules.
    • Special rules apply to members of the U.S. Armed Forces in combat zones. Members of the military can elect to include their nontaxable combat pay as earned income for the purpose of computing the EITC. Even if you make this choice, your combat       pay will remain nontaxable.

5. Use the EITC Assistant.  It’s easy to determine if you qualify. The EITC Assistant, a helpful tool available on IRS.gov, removes the guesswork from eligibility rules. Just answer a few simple questions to find out if you qualify and to estimate the amount of your EITC.

With IRS Free File, you can claim EITC by using brand name tax preparation software to prepare and e-file your tax return for free. It’s available exclusively at IRS.gov/freefile. Free help preparing your return to claim your EITC is also available at one of thousands of Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites around the country. To find the volunteer site nearest to you, use the VITA locator tool on IRS.gov.

For more information about the EITC, see IRS Publication 596, Earned Income Credit. It’s available in English and Spanish on IRS.gov or by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

IRS Announces Guidance on the Principal Reduction Alternative Offered in the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP)

January 24th, 2013

The Internal Revenue Service today announced guidance to borrowers, mortgage loan holders and loan servicers who are participating in the Principal Reduction AlternativeSM offered through the Department of the Treasury’s and Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Home Affordable Modification Program® (HAMP-PRA®).

To help financially distressed homeowners lower their monthly mortgage payments, Treasury and HUD established HAMP, which is described at www.makinghomeaffordable.gov. Under HAMP-PRA, the principal of the borrower’s mortgage may be reduced by a predetermined amount called the PRA Forbearance Amount if the borrower satisfies certain conditions during a trial period. The principal reduction occurs over three years.

More specifically, if the loan is in good standing on the first, second and third annual anniversaries of the effective date of the trial period, the loan servicer reduces the unpaid principal balance of the loan by one-third of the initial PRA Forbearance Amount on each anniversary date. This means that if the borrower continues to make timely payments on the loan for three years, the entire PRA Forbearance Amount is forgiven. To encourage mortgage loan holders to participate in HAMP–PRA, the HAMP program administrator will make an incentive payment to the loan holder (called a PRA investor incentive payment) for each of the three years in which the loan principal balance is reduced.

Guidance on Tax Consequences to Borrowers

The guidance issued today provides that PRA investor incentive payments made by the HAMP program administrator to mortgage loan holders are treated as payments on the mortgage loans by the United States government on behalf of the borrowers. These payments are generally not taxable to the borrowers under the general welfare doctrine.

If the principal amount of a mortgage loan is reduced by an amount that exceeds the total amount of the PRA investor incentive payments made to the mortgage loan holder, the borrower may be required to include the excess amount in gross income as income from the discharge of indebtedness. However, many borrowers will qualify for an exclusion from gross income.

For example, a borrower may be eligible to exclude the discharge of indebtedness income from gross income if (1) the discharge of indebtedness occurs (in other words, the loan is modified) before Jan. 1, 2014, and the mortgage loan is qualified principal residence indebtedness, or (2) the discharge of indebtedness occurs when the borrower is insolvent. For additional exclusions that may apply, see Publication 4681, Canceled Debts, Foreclosures, Repossessions, and Abandonments (for Individuals).

Borrowers receiving aid under the HAMP–PRA program may report any discharge of indebtedness income — whether included in, or excluded from, gross income — either in the year of the permanent modification of the mortgage loan or ratably over the three years in which the mortgage loan principal is reduced on the servicer’s books. Borrowers who exclude the discharge of indebtedness income must report both the amount of the income and any resulting reduction in basis or tax attributes on Form 982 Reduction of Tax Attributes Due to Discharge of Indebtedness (and Section 1082 Basis Adjustment).

Guidance on Tax Consequences to Mortgage Loan Holders

The guidance issued today explains that mortgage loan holders are required to file a Form 1099-C with respect to a borrower who realizes discharge of indebtedness income of $600 or more for the year in which the permanent modification of the mortgage loan occurs. This rule applies regardless of when the borrower chooses to report the income (that is, in the year of the permanent modification or one-third each year as the mortgage loan principal is reduced) and regardless of whether the borrower excludes some or all of the amount from gross income.

Penalty relief is provided for mortgage loan holders that fail to timely file and furnish required Forms 1099-C, as long as certain requirements described in the guidance are satisfied.

Courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service.

IRS Offers Tips to Help Taxpayers with the January 30

January 23rd, 2013


The IRS will begin processing most individual income tax returns on Jan. 30 after updating forms and completing programming and testing of its processing systems. The IRS anticipated many of the tax law changes made by Congress under the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA), but the final law requires some changes before the IRS can begin accepting tax returns.

The IRS will not process paper or electronic tax returns before the Jan. 30 opening date, so there is no advantage to filing on paper before then. Using e-file is the best way to file an accurate tax return, and using e-file with direct deposit is the fastest way to get a refund.

Many major software providers are accepting tax returns in advance of the Jan. 30 processing date. These software providers will hold onto the returns and then electronically submit them after the IRS systems open. If you use commercial software, check with your provider for specific instructions about when they will accept your return. Software companies and tax professionals send returns to the IRS, but the timing of the refunds is determined by IRS processing, which starts Jan. 30.

After the IRS starts processing returns, it expects to process refunds within the usual timeframes. Last year, the IRS issued more than nine out of 10 refunds to taxpayers in less than 21 days, and it expects the same results in 2013. Even though the IRS issues most refunds in less than 21 days, some tax returns will require additional review and take longer. To help protect against refund fraud, the IRS has put in place stronger security filters this filing season.

After taxpayers file a return, they can track the status of the refund with the “Where’s My Refund?” tool available on the IRS.gov website. New this year, instead of an estimated date, Where’s My Refund? will give people an actual personalized refund date after the IRS processes the tax return and approves the refund.

“Where’s My Refund?” will be available for use after the IRS starts processing tax returns on Jan. 30. Here are some tips for using “Where’s My Refund?” after it’s available on Jan. 30:

  • Initial information will generally be available within 24 hours after the IRS receives the taxpayer’s e-filed return or four weeks after mailing a paper return.
  • The system updates every 24 hours, usually overnight. There’s no need to check more than once a day.
  • “Where’s My Refund?” provides the most accurate and complete information that the IRS has about the refund, so there is no need to call the IRS unless the web tool says to do so.
  • To use the “Where’s My Refund?” tool, taxpayers need to have a copy of their tax return for reference. Taxpayers will need their social security number, filing status and the exact dollar amount of the refund they are expecting.

 

Divorce and Life Insurance in Re Marriage of Hall

January 22nd, 2013

Johnson District Court—Reversed Court of Appeals—Reversed No. 101,834

FACTS: In divorce proceedings between Marc and Susan Hall, the court ordered Marc to pay maintenance and child support. In addition, despite Marc’s objection, the district court ordered Marc to “cooperate” with Susan’s attempts to obtain insurance on Marc’s life and Susan’s own expense. Court of Appeals affirmed by rejecting Marc’s argument that the district court impermissible created and divided a property interest, that the district court’s order did not violate public policy, and that once Marc’s child support and maintenance obligations ended, Susan will no longer have insurable interest in Marc’s life.

ISSUES: (1) Divorce and (2) life insurance

HELD: Court held that a court order requiring a child support obligor to cooperate with a child support obligee’s efforts to obtain insurance on the life of the obligor is against public policy, as expressed by the Kansas legislature in K.S.A. 40-453(a), if the obligor objects to the order. Consequently, it is an abuse of discretion to issue such an order when the obligor has stated an objection.

Stealing an Expired Credit Card is Still Stealing

January 16th, 2013

Allegations in motion for new trail must have support in affidavit or live testimony. Late disclosure of witness interview recordings did not prejudice appellant because appellant already had the information in the recordings and used it in his defense. Evidence that victim left credit card at home while on vacation, and that appellant possessed it without permission, supports a conviction for class C felony of stealing a credit card. That card was expired is not a defense. “[P]roof that the card is active or related to an open account” is not an element of the offense.

Annual Inflation Adjustments for 2013

January 11th, 2013

The Internal Revenue Service announced today annual inflation adjustments for tax year 2013, including the tax rate schedules, and other tax changes from the recently passed American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.

The tax items for 2013 of greatest interest to most taxpayers include the following changes.

  • Beginning in tax year 2013 (generally for tax returns filed in 2014), a new tax rate of 39.6 percent has been added for individuals whose income exceeds $400,000 ($450,000 for married taxpayers filing a joint return). The other marginal rates — 10, 15, 25, 28, 33 and 35 percent — remain the same as in prior years. The guidance contains the taxable income thresholds for each of the marginal rates.
  • The standard deduction rises to $6,100 ($12,200 for married couples filing jointly), up from $5,950 ($11,900 for married couples filing jointly) for tax year 2012.
  • The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 added a limitation for itemized deductions claimed on 2013 returns of individuals with incomes of $250,000 or more ($300,000 for married couples filing jointly).
  • The personal exemption rises to $3,900, up from the 2012 exemption of $3,800. However beginning in 2013, the exemption is subject to a phase-out that begins with adjusted gross incomes of $150,000 ($300,000 for married couples filing jointly). It phases out completely at $211,250 ($422,500 for married couples filing jointly.)
  • The Alternative Minimum Tax exemption amount for tax year 2013 is $51,900 ($80,800, for married couples filing jointly), set by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, which indexes future amounts for inflation. The 2012 exemption amount was $50,600 ($78,750 for married couples filing jointly).
  • The maximum Earned Income Credit amount is $6,044 for taxpayers filing jointly who have 3 or more qualifying children, up from a total of $5,891 for tax year 2012.
  • Estates of decedents who die during 2013 have a basic exclusion amount of $5,250,000, up from a total of $5,120,000 for estates of decedents who died in 2012.

For tax year 2013, the monthly limitation regarding the aggregate fringe benefit exclusion amount for transit passes and transportation in a commuter highway vehicle is $245, up from $240 for tax year 2012 (the legislation provided a retroactive increase from the $125 limit that had been in place).

Courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service.

Important Information for Lawyers Who Accept Credit Card Payments

January 10th, 2013

  • Changes in the law regarding the reporting of credit card transactions have the potential to negatively impact IOLTA accounts and lead to ethically violations by lawyers.
  • Pursuant to the Housing Assistance Tax Act of 2008, credit card processing companies are required to verify and match each merchant’s federal tax identification number and her legal name with those found on file with the IRS. An EXACT match is required.
  • For the purposes of this requirement, lawyers who accept credit card payments are considered “merchants.”
  • If there is NOT an exact match between the information provided to the credit card processing company and the information on file with the IRS, there are serious consequences:
    • Beginning January 2013, the IRS will impose at 28% withholding penalty on all credit card transactions, including those that the lawyer directs to her IOLTA account.
    • If client funds that should be in the IOLTA account are withheld due to the lawyer’s failure to act and thus are not available to the client on demand, ethical issues are raised.
  • The credit card processing company should have received information from the IRS if a mismatch occurred and already notified the lawyer of the problem. However, it is not known if all processing companies have provided such notice.
  • Steps lawyers can take now to avoid and ethical violation in 2013:
    • Contact the credit card processor to determine that a match occurred;
    • Correct mismatches if informed of one.

National Taxpayer Advocate Delivers Annual Report to Congress; Focuses on Tax Reform, IRS Funding and Identity Theft

January 9th, 2013

National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson today released her 2012 annual report to Congress, identifying the need for tax reform as the overriding priority in tax administration. The Advocate also expressed concern that the Internal Revenue Service is not adequately funded to serve taxpayers and collect tax, and identified ways in which this chronic underfunding harms taxpayers and the public fisc. She also found that the IRS is not doing enough to assist victims of tax-related identity theft and return preparer fraud.

TAX REFORM

The National Taxpayer Advocate’s annual report designates the complexity of the tax code as the #1 most serious problem facing taxpayers and recommends that Congress take significant steps to simplify it. “The existing tax code makes compliance difficult, requiring taxpayers to devote excessive time to preparing and filing their returns,” Olson wrote. “It obscures comprehension, leaving many taxpayers unaware how their taxes are computed and what rate of tax they pay; it facilitates tax avoidance by enabling sophisticated taxpayers to reduce their tax liabilities and provides criminals with opportunities to commit tax fraud; and it undermines trust in the system by creating an impression that many taxpayers are not compliant, thereby reducing the incentives that honest taxpayers feel to comply.”

Compliance Burdens. The report states that the tax code imposes a “significant, even unconscionable, burden on taxpayers.” Since 2001, Congress has made nearly 5,000 changes to the tax code, an average of more than one a day, and the number of words in the code appears to have reached nearly four million.

An analysis of IRS data by the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) shows that individuals and businesses spend about 6.1 billion hours a year complying with tax-filing requirements. “If tax compliance were an industry, it would be one of the largest in the United States,” the report says. “To consume 6.1 billion hours, the ‘tax industry’ requires the equivalent of more than three million full-time workers.”

Individual taxpayers find return preparation so overwhelming that few do it on their own. Nearly 60 percent of taxpayers hire paid preparers, and another 30 percent rely on commercial software, with leading software packages costing $50 or more. In other words, taxpayers must spend money just to figure out how much money they owe.

Magnitude of “Tax Expenditures.” To reduce taxpayer burden and enhance public confidence in the integrity of the tax system, the report urges Congress to greatly simplify the tax code. In general, this means Congress should reassess the need for existing income exclusions, exemptions, deductions and credits (generally known as “tax expenditures”). For fiscal year (FY) 2013, the Joint Committee on Taxation has projected that tax expenditures will come to about $1.09 trillion, while individual income tax revenue is projected to be about $1.36 trillion. To put these numbers in perspective, if Congress were to eliminate all tax expenditures, straight math indicates it could cut individual income tax rates by 44 percent and still generate the same amount of revenue it collects under current rules.

Tax Policy Decisions and Revenue Decisions Should Be Made Separately and Then Married Up. The report recommends that Congress approach tax reform in a manner similar to zero-based budgeting. The starting assumption would be that all tax expenditures would be eliminated. A tax break would be retained only if a compelling case can be made that the benefits of that break outweigh the complexity burden it creates. “In performing this analysis,” Olson said in releasing the report, “we should look at each provision in the code and ask questions like: ‘Does this government incentive make sense?’; ‘If it does, is it better administered through the tax code or as a direct spending program?’; ‘However well intentioned, is it doing what it was intended to do?’; and ‘If yes, can it be administered without imposing unreasonable burdens on taxpayers or the IRS?’. At the same time, Congress can separately consider how much revenue it wants to raise, and it can then marry up our optimally designed tax system with our revenue needs by setting tax rates accordingly.”

Recommendations. The report recommends that Members of Congress take several steps, including:

1) Lay the groundwork for tax reform by holding meetings with constituents to discuss the complexity of the existing tax code and the trade-offs between tax rates and tax breaks that tax reform will require.

2) Apply a “zero-based budgeting” approach to comprehensive tax reform that starts out with the assumption that all tax benefits will be eliminated and then adds a benefit back only if Members conclude that, on balance, the public policy benefits of providing that benefit through the tax code outweigh the complexity it imposes on taxpayers.

IRS FUNDING

The IRS budget has been reduced in each of the last two fiscal years, and appears likely to face further cuts in coming years. Although these cuts reflect across-the-board reductions in federal discretionary spending, underfunding the IRS makes no sense, Olson said. “The IRS is materially different from other discretionary programs in that it serves as the de facto Accounts Receivable Department of the federal government. Each dollar appropriated for the IRS generates substantially more than one dollar in additional revenue. It is therefore ironic and counterproductive that concerns about the deficit are leading to cuts in the IRS budget, when those cuts are making the deficit larger.”

Olson added: “The plain truth is that the IRS’s mission trumps all other agencies’ missions, because without an effective revenue collector, you can’t fund those other agencies.”

IRS Funding Decisions Fail to Take Into Account “Return on Investment.” On a budget of $11.8 billion, the IRS collected $2.52 trillion in FY 2012. That translates to an average return-on-investment (ROI) of about 214:1. Yet the appropriations process treats the IRS like any other discretionary spending program, with no explicit recognition that each dollar appropriated for the IRS generates substantially more than one dollar in additional revenue. Last year, the IRS Commissioner estimated in a letter to Congress that proposed reductions in the IRS budget would cause tax collections to fall seven times as much.

“No business would fail to fund a unit that, on average, brought in $7 for every dollar spent. Shareholders would rebel and bring lawsuits, or at least oust the management or board of directors,” Olson wrote in her preface to the report. “Yet this is precisely what we are doing with the IRS budget.”

Lack of Funding Hampers Taxpayer Service. The report says that lack of funding is also preventing the IRS from meeting taxpayer needs. Since FY 2004, when taxpayer service levels peaked, the IRS’s performance in handling telephone calls and correspondence has been declining. In FY 2004, the IRS answered 87 percent of all calls seeking to reach a live telephone assister, and the average wait time was just over 2½ minutes. In FY 2012, the IRS answered just 68 percent of its calls, and those who got through spent an average of nearly 17 minutes waiting on hold. In FY 2012, the IRS received over 10 million letters in response to proposed tax adjustments, and at the end of the year, 48 percent of all taxpayer correspondence in its inventory had not been processed within established timeframes – up dramatically from 12 percent in FY 2004.

“Congress has enacted laws that now require more than 140 million individuals to file income tax returns,” Olson said. “When taxpayers are attempting to comply with laws that require them to turn over a significant portion of their incomes to pay our nation’s bills, they have a right to expect that their government will do a better job of taking their telephone calls and answering their letters.”

Lack of Funding Impairs Taxpayer Rights and Increases Taxpayer Burden. The report identifies numerous areas where lack of funding is causing taxpayer problems. “Nowhere is this more apparent than in the IRS’s increasing use of automated enforcement procedures,” Olson said. “To conserve resources, the IRS has largely automated its correspondence audits and its issuance of liens and levies. It typically moves forward with tax assessments without first talking to taxpayers to give them a chance to substantiate their return positions, and it proceeds with liens and levies before having a conversation to find out whether a tax delinquency is due to financial hardship, which would suggest that an installment agreement or offer-in-compromise should be considered.” The report notes that the IRS’s limited resources to conduct outreach and education to taxpayers (particularly small businesses) and to enforce the laws also contribute to its inability to close the annual tax gap, which was most recently estimated at nearly $400 billion in 2006. The report points out that noncompliance violates the rights of compliant taxpayers, who indirectly pay more tax to make up the shortfall. Based on Census Bureau data, the average household effectively paid an extra $3,300 in tax in 2006 to subsidize noncompliance by others.

Recommendations. The report recommends that Congress:

1) Consider revising the budget rules so that the IRS is “fenced off” from otherwise applicable spending ceilings and is funded at a level designed to maximize tax compliance, particularly voluntary compliance, with due regard for protecting taxpayer rights and minimizing taxpayer burden.

2) Keep in mind in allocating IRS resources that tax compliance requires an appropriate balance between high quality taxpayer service and effective tax-law enforcement, and funding should be provided in a manner that allows the IRS to maintain such a balance.

TAX-RELATED IDENTITY THEFT

The number of tax-related identity theft incidents has increased substantially in recent years. Within TAS, identity theft case receipts increased by more than 650 percent from FY 2008 to FY 2012. At the end of FY 2012, the IRS had almost 650,000 identity-theft cases in its inventory servicewide. The problem has grown worse as organized criminal actors have found ways to steal the Social Security numbers (SSNs) of taxpayers, file tax returns using those taxpayers’ names and SSNs, and obtain fraudulent tax refunds. Then, when the real taxpayer files a return claiming the refund, that return is rejected. The impact on victims is significant. More than 75 percent of taxpayers filing returns are due refunds, which average some $3,000 and are not paid until the IRS fully resolves a case.

IRS Commitments. In 2008, the IRS Commissioner testified about identity theft before a Senate Finance Committee hearing. He stated: “My overall goal as the IRS Commissioner is that when a taxpayer [who is an identity theft victim] contacts us with an issue or concern, we have in place a seamless process that gets the issue resolved promptly.” Later that year, the IRS established an “Identity Protection Specialized Unit” (or “IPSU”), which was designed to provide centralized assistance to victims of identity theft. The National Taxpayer Advocate supported the commitment to centralized and prompt victim assistance.

IRS Performance. The report says the IRS has created numerous task forces and other teams in recent years in an attempt to improve its identity theft processes, yet victims still face the same “labyrinth of procedures and drawn-out timeframes for resolution” that they faced five years ago. The IRS is instructing its employees to advise identity theft victims that it will take 180 days – half a year – to resolve their cases. Complicated cases inevitably will take longer. Thus, the IRS’s procedural changes are not providing faster relief.

The report also says the IRS has decided to reverse course and decentralize victim assistance. It recently created specialized units within each of 21 individual functions to work on identity theft cases, apparently under the belief that most identity theft cases involve a single issue that the relevant specialized unit can work most efficiently. The report expresses concern about this backtracking from a centralized approach.

One-Stop Shopping Needed. TAS itself handled nearly 55,000 identity theft cases in FY 2012, most of which involved multiple issues that required actions by multiple units. The report expresses concern that creation of 21 specialized units will erode the centralized role of the IPSU, require taxpayers to speak with multiple functions, increase the time it takes to resolve cases, and heighten the risk that some issues may not be addressed.

“Taxpayers need ‘one-stop shopping’ – a single point of contact they can work with to resolve all issues in their cases – and the IRS needs a ‘traffic cop’ to make sure that all units complete their actions and that parts of cases do not fall through the cracks,” Olson said. “And six months is an unacceptable period of time to expect taxpayer-victims to wait. The IRS must do more to provide the prompt and seamless assistance to identity theft victims that Commissioner Shulman promised.”

OTHER KEY ISSUES ADDRESSED

Federal law requires the Advocate’s Annual Report to Congress to identify at least 20 of the “most serious problems” encountered by taxpayers and make administrative and legislative recommendations to mitigate those problems. Overall, this year’s report identifies 23 problems, provides updates on six previously identified problems, makes dozens of recommendations for administrative change, makes seven recommendations for legislative change, and analyzes the 10 tax issues most frequently litigated in the federal courts.

Among the “most serious problems” addressed are the following:

  • The IRS’s failure to provide tax refunds to victims of preparer fraud. When a taxpayer is victimized by a preparer who receives a fraudulent refund by paper check, the IRS will issue a replacement refund to the taxpayer. However, the IRS will not issue a replacement refund when a taxpayer is victimized by a preparer who receives the fraudulent refund by altering the bank routing      number on a direct-deposit request, even though the IRS has received legal advice that it may do so. Olson says the taxpayer-victim is legally entitled to receive the refund, and the IRS has no legal basis for withholding it.
  • The IRS’s extraordinarily high audit rate of taxpayers who claim the adoption tax credit. Congress created the adoption tax credit to help low and middle income families afford the costs of an adoption, which are estimated to run as high as $40,000. Yet the IRS, partly using income-based rules, selected 69 percent of tax returns claiming the credit during the 2012 filing season for audit, compared with one percent of returns overall. These audits imposed significant burden on the affected taxpayers for several reasons, most notably because the median refund claim constituted nearly one-quarter of the taxpayers’ adjusted gross income for the year, and the audits on average took over four months. Despite the burden, the payoff was relatively small. The IRS denied only about 10 percent of the amounts claimed in tax year 2010, and as of mid-November had denied only about 1.5  percent of the amounts claimed in tax year 2011. The excessive focus on returns claiming the adoption credit burdened many taxpayers and could have the effect of negating Congress’s intent to encourage adoptions, the report says.
  • The IRS’s Offshore Voluntary Disclosure programs and their failure to distinguish adequately between “bad actors” and “benign actors.” The IRS has sought to increase enforcement of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) reporting requirements in recent years and has offered a series of voluntary disclosure programs designed to settle with taxpayers who had failed to file required FBAR forms. However, the report says, the programs generally applied a “one-size-fits-all” approach that required the payment of significant penalties and did not distinguish between “bad actors” and “benign actors.” By generally requiring taxpayers who make voluntary disclosures to “opt out” of the disclosure program and submit to comprehensive audits in order to avoid draconian penalties, the report argues that the program has caused excessive burden and fear for taxpayers who had reasonable cause for not filing FBAR forms or whose failure to file was inadvertent.

Research Study on Factors Influencing Voluntary Tax Compliance by Small Businesses. Volume 2 of the report contains six research studies, including preliminary results of a survey of sole proprietors that TAS commissioned to better understand factors that may affect income tax reporting compliance. The Advocate’s office undertook the study because the IRS has estimated that only 43 percent of sole proprietor income is reported on tax returns, representing the largest portion of the tax gap (i.e., tax that is owed but is not timely and voluntarily paid). Developing a more complete picture of the attitudes of this category of taxpayers therefore could assist the IRS in improving tax compliance. Based on IRS computer scoring of the likely compliance level of tax returns, the Advocate’s office selected a sample of the most compliant and the least compliant returns and commissioned an anonymous survey of certain groups of these taxpayers to determine attitudinal and other differences. Among the preliminary findings:

  • Respondents in the high-compliance group expressed more trust in government and the IRS.
  • Respondents from low-compliance communities were suspicious of the tax system and its fairness.
  • Respondents in the high-compliance group were more likely to use return preparers.
  • Taxpayers in the low-compliance groups expressed less trust in tax preparers and were less likely to use them or follow their advice.
  • Low-compliance taxpayers tended to be clustered in certain communities.