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National Taxpayer Advocate identifies challenges and issues for upcoming year to Congress

Last week, Nina E. Olson, the US National Taxpayer Advocate, released a report to Congress that identifies the priority issues the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) will focus on during the upcoming fiscal year.  The report expresses concern about the of expired and expiring tax provisions on the taxpayer, the rise in tax fraud and tax-related identity theft, and attempts to limit the National Taxpayer Advocate’s formal input on issues that affect taxpayer rights and burden via “Taxpayer Assistance Orders” and “Taxpayer Advocate Directives.”

Impact of Changes in Tax Law on Taxpayers and the IRS – “The continual enactment of significant tax law and extender provisions late in the year has led to IRS delays in handling millions of taxpayers’ returns and caused many taxpayers to underclaim benefits because they did not know what the law was,” Olson wrote.  “Because of the magnitude of these challenges and the uncertainty about such a large number of important provisions, the 2013 filing season is already at risk.  The 2013 filing season is likely to pose problems for many (if not most) taxpayers and the IRS if Congress does not address the many provisions that have already expired or soon will.”

Expired Tax Provisions – Among tax provisions that expired at the end of 2011 are the following:

  • The so-called “AMT patch” – As result, an estimated 27 million more taxpayers are subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax this year.
  • The deduction for state and local taxes – About 11 million taxpayers claimed this deduction last year.
  • The deduction for mortgage insurance premiums – About four million taxpayers recently claimed this deduction.
  • A provision allowing persons over age 70-1/2 to make tax-free withdrawals from their Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) to make charitable contributions.

Congress is likely to extend many of these and other expired provisions retroactive to January 1, 2012, but neither taxpayers nor the IRS know for certain what will happen and therefore cannot make plans.  For example, a homebuyer trying to decide whether to utilize a loan package that includes mortgage insurance now lacks important information.  So does a pensioner trying to decide whether to tap his IRA to make a charitable donation.

Expiring Tax Provisions – In addition to the provisions that expired at the end of 2011, an even larger number of provisions are set to expire at the end of 2012, including the Bush-era cuts in marginal tax rates, reduced tax rates on dividends and long-term capital gains, various marriage penalty relief provisions, certain components of the child tax credit, the earned income tax credit, and the adoption credit, and the moratoria on the phase-outs of itemized deductions and personal exemptions.

“An aura of uncertainty prevails as the IRS and taxpayers wait for word about what will be the law governing us this year and for the near future,” Olson wrote.  “This uncertainty affects the IRS’s ability to smoothly administer the filing season and taxpayers’ ability to make plans.”

Impact of Tax Fraud and Tax-Related Identity Theft – Tax fraud and tax-related identity theft, although distinct problems, often overlap and present similar challenges for taxpayers and the IRS.  Both problems are growing.  In FY 2011, the IRS’s Electronic Fraud Detection System (EFDS) identified more than one million returns as potentially fraudulent, a 72 percent increase from the previous year.  The IRS blocked nearly one million additional refund claims using other means.  While not all fraudulent returns involve identity theft, many do.  The IRS recently reported an inventory of more than 450,000 identity theft cases.

Tax Fraud – The report notes that the IRS’s automated fraud-detection filters are inherently imperfect.  Among the roughly two million refund claims the IRS held, tens of thousands were legitimate.  “As the IRS develops [its] filters,” the report says, “it must also create procedures that would allow honest taxpayers with legitimate refund claims to receive their money without unnecessary delay.”

Where the IRS seeks to verify suspect wage and withholding information, its procedures until recently required it to make a final determination within 11 weeks or release the claimed refund.  Because of the combination of more cases and budget limitations, the IRS is now placing “hard freezes” on cases it cannot handle within that time, meaning that claimed refunds must be manually released or will not be paid.  The report expresses concern that the IRS has little incentive to prioritize a case once a hard freeze has been imposed, resulting in harm to honest taxpayers whose returns inadvertently tripped a filter.

Identity Theft – Resource constraints also are limiting the IRS’s ability to assist victims of tax-related identity theft.  Tax-related identity theft typically arises when an identity thief uses the Social Security number of another person to file a false tax return with the intent of obtaining an improper refund.  Identity theft can impose a significant burden on its victims, whose legitimate refund claims are blocked and who often must spend months or longer trying to convince the IRS that they are, in fact, victims and then working with the IRS to untangle their account problems.

Balancing Speedy Refunds, Fraud Prevention, and Victim Assistance – The report notes the IRS faces competing pressures to issue refunds quickly and investigate suspicious claims.  Last year, the IRS processed about 145 million returns, including some 109 million claims for refund.  The average refund paid was nearly $3,000.  Many families depend on these funds and need them quickly, sometimes to pay rent or high winter heating bills.  At the same time, the IRS needs time to investigate the more than two million potentially fraudulent claims it identifies.

The IRS now notifies certain affected taxpayers by letter when it has a problem processing their returns and instructs them to call the new Taxpayer Protection Unit (TPU) to provide more information.  However, this unit has been unable to answer about two out of every three calls it has received from taxpayers so far this year.  At times during the filing season, it was answering only about one out of every nine calls it received – and those who managed to get through waited an average of over an hour to speak with an employee.

“While Congress and taxpayers rightfully demand that the IRS stop payment on fraudulent refund claims, Congress and taxpayers also rightfully demand that the IRS pay refunds out to legitimate taxpayers immediately,” Olson wrote.  Tax fraud and identity theft will continue to be key areas of focus for TAS during the upcoming fiscal year.

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