The Taxpayer Advocate: A Friend at the IRS
You’ve tried to solve your problem with the IRS, but no one seems to want to help—your letters and calls have fallen onto closed ears and the collectors are about to take the shirt off your back. So whom can you call? The IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS).
Local Taxpayer Advocacy
Help is available whenever normal IRS channels have failed. Each state and IRS campus has at least one local taxpayer advocate office. (See IRS Publication 1546, available at the IRS website at www.irs.gov.) Taxpayer advocates have the power —mandated by Congress—to cut through red tape and help you. There are 2,300 employees of the Taxpayer Advocate Service spread across the United States. In a recent year, they received 200,000 cases.
The IRS claims that nearly half of all requests for help from the Taxpayer Advocate’s Service are resolved satisfactorily to the taxpayer, in under five days. Complex problems take ten to 30 days—still good by normal IRS standards! The Taxpayer Advocate Service was formerly called the Problems Resolution Program.
The IRS has a program called Problem Solving Days. These are sessions for taxpayers or their representatives to bring in matters they haven’t been able to resolve through normal IRS channels. Senior people there have the power to cut through red tape and get to the bottom of things. You can walk in or, better, make an appointment ahead of time. Call 800-829-1040 to see if the program is offered in your area. Or, check the IRS website at www.irs.gov. Don’t expect miracles, but the feedback on this program has been positive. It’s worth a shot—and it’s free.
Goals of the Taxpayer Advocate Program
The IRS acknowledges that taxpayers are often ignored or shuffled among different IRS departments. The Taxpayer Advocate’s Service’s goals are to:
- assist taxpayers facing hardships
- ensure that taxpayers have an independent, monitored system for the resolution of problems that have not been solved through regular IRS channels
- serve as a taxpayer’s advocate within the IRS to make sure that the taxpayer has a say in the IRS decision-making process, and
- recommend administrative and legislative changes to Congress.
Who Qualifies for Help From a Taxpayer Advocate?
Contact the Taxpayer Advocate Service only after first attempting and failing to fix the problem within IRS channels. Be ready to provide the taxpayer advocate with copies of previous IRS correspondence and notes indicating dates, times, and summaries of telephone conversations.
Who initially caused the problem—you or the IRS—is immaterial, according to the Internal Revenue Manual. So a taxpayer advocate can’t beg off by saying that you should have filed your tax return on time, paid your taxes when they were due, or whatever else you did or didn’t do wrong.
Problems the Taxpayer Advocate Will Pursue
The taxpayer advocate won’t investigate all difficulties you are having with the IRS. Your problem must fall into one of the situations listed below, and you must have first taken the necessary steps for the given situation.
Refunds Not Received
Before the Taxpayer Advocate Service will help, you must have made at least two inquiries into the status of your refund, and at least 90 days must have passed since you filed your tax return (or amended tax return).
Edith filed an amended tax return claiming a refund on July 15, 2006. On October 1, 2006, she called the IRS and was told to expect the refund in three weeks. When she still had no refund on November 1, 2006, she called again. This time the clerk told her to keep waiting. Edith qualifies for taxpayer advocate assistance.
No Response to Your Inquiries
Before the Taxpayer Advocate Service will help, you must have contacted the IRS at least twice before. At least 45 days must have passed since you made your first inquiry. And you must not have received an IRS response by the date promised.
Gary wrote to the IRS requesting a copy of his tax account on February 13, 2006. He received an IRS letter promising a copy by April 7, 2006. When that date passed and he still didn’t have a copy of his account, he called the IRS. The clerk told him she had no information. Gary qualifies for taxpayer advocate assistance.
IRS Notice Problems
Before the Taxpayer Advocate Service will help you deal with an IRS notice, you must have responded at least twice by requesting some IRS action. And you must not have received any meaningful IRS response.
Ooma received two tax bills that were a month apart. She responded to each notice with a letter stating she had paid the amount in question and enclosed copies of canceled checks as proof. When Ooma received a third bill, she qualified for taxpayer advocate assistance.
Emergencies and Other Problems
Even if your problem doesn’t fall into one of the above three categories, you still may qualify for taxpayer advocate help—if you believe the IRS mistreated you.
Peter was informed by his bank that the IRS issued an Intent to Levy Notice for his bank account. Peter never received any notice from the IRS indicating that he owed money. Peter qualifies for taxpayer advocate help.
A revenue officer (tax collector) showed up at Betty’s job. He asked questions about her tax debt in front of her boss and customers. Her complaint to the collector’s supervisor went unanswered. Betty is afraid more visits may cause her to lose her job. Betty can call the Taxpayer Advocate Service.
The IRS recorded a tax lien against Sam. Sam paid off the debt, but two months later the IRS still hadn’t filed a Satisfaction of Lien. Sam is trying to buy a car, but the dealer won’t arrange financing because of the lien in his credit file. Sam needs immediate help and can call the Taxpayer Advocate Service.
The IRS recorded an erroneous tax lien against Janice, but it was her husband, not her, who owed the debt. The collection division has exceeded the 30-day limit for filing a Certificate of Release, even after she informed them of the error. Janice qualifies for help from the Taxpayer Advocate Service.
Problems the Taxpayer Advocate Won’t Pursue
The Taxpayer Advocate Service won’t help you in the following situations:
- You haven’t followed an IRS-established administrative procedure, such as requesting an appeal.
- The IRS responded to you, but you don’t agree with the answer. Contacting the taxpayer advocate may be worth a try. For example, if you’ve requested an installment agreement and the IRS rejected your proposal and is about to seize your bank account, call the Taxpayer Advocate Service.
- The problem does not directly involve your taxes. For example, the Taxpayer Advocate Service won’t take complaints about IRS personnel or about documents you were denied in a Freedom of Information Act request.
- The problem can’t be solved by the IRS. If you don’t like a particular tax law, for instance, write your congressperson, not the taxpayer advocate. Or your problem may be with another federal agency, such as the Social Security Administration.
- Your case is in the criminal investigation division of the IRS.
- The IRS has classified you as a tax protestor or you have raised a similar issue, such as claiming the tax laws are unconstitutional.
- Your position is that you cannot or will not pay your tax bill under any circumstances.
Contacting the Taxpayer Advocate Service
The Taxpayer Advocate Service is located at many, but not all, IRS offices. If it’s an emergency—for example, your business vehicle is scheduled to be sold by the IRS tomorrow—call, fax, or visit the nearest IRS office and ask for the taxpayer advocate.
Otherwise, request help by calling 877-777-4778 (toll-free). If you don’t get through, leave a phone number for a return call. Or if it’s not an emergency, write and describe the problem. (A sample letter is below.) Mail or fax your letter to your local Taxpayer Advocate Service office.
If you call first, follow up with a letter concisely reiterating your problem. And because the IRS loves documentation, whether you write first or write as a follow-up, include in your letter:
- your full name and Social Security number
- copies of IRS notices and prior correspondence to and from the IRS—this is very important
- a concise explanation of your problem
- if applicable, clear, legible copies of canceled checks—both front and back—showing payments that were not credited to your account, and
- a daytime telephone number and hours when you can be reached—this is vital for quick action.
Sign and date your letter.
Tell the truth! The IRS is authorized to contact third parties to verify facts about your claimed hardship.
If you qualify for taxpayer advocate help, your case will be assigned to a specific taxpayer advocate. She will immediately begin working on your problem or assign it to a staff member.
Below is a sample letter requesting taxpayer advocate assistance.
Sample Taxpayer Advocate Letter
Internal Revenue Service
Taxpayer Advocate Service
P.O. Box 1302 (Stop 1005)
Denver, CO 80201
November 18, 20xx
Re: Benedict Cooper—SSN 555-55-5555
Dear Sir or Madam:
Please help me straighten out a problem that I have been unable to resolve with the IRS.
Enclosed is a copy of a tax notice dated September 1, 20xx, in the amount of $892.40. I paid this on July 15, 20xx, when I sent in my tax return. Enclosed is a copy of my canceled check, front and back, which shows that the IRS received the money.
I wrote the IRS on September 5, 20xx, and sent a copy of this check. On October 5, 20xx, I received another notice (copy enclosed) again requesting payment. On October 10, 20xx, I sent another letter and copy of the check. On November 15, 20xx, I received a third notice for the same amount instead of a response to my two prior letters.
I can be reached during the day at my work, 303-555-1800, from 9 am to 5 pm. My address is 47 Bear Circle, Littleton, CO 80001.
Enclosures: Copies of IRS notices and my two responses
Control yourself when working with an IRS taxpayer advocate. If you yell, he may classify you as a nut case or as irate, and back off from helping you. Remember, the taxpayer advocate may be your last chance.
Emergency Help: Taxpayer Assistance Orders
Taxpayer advocates can quickly intervene on behalf of taxpayers to local IRS officers and IRS campuses. The advocates can order the IRS to cease from any action that causes a significant hardship by issuing a Taxpayer Assistance Order, or TAO. Or, they will try to work out a solution to your problem without actually issuing a formal TAO, especially in the following situations:
- The IRS has seized or has threatened to seize your bank account, pension plan, or car. You need to pay rent or your family will be thrown out on the street, and you need that car to get to work.
- Your paycheck was garnished by the IRS leaving you too little on which to survive. You are willing to enter into a reasonable payment plan if the wage garnishment is stopped.
What Constitutes a Significant Hardship to the IRS?
The IRS says that a significant hardship means not being able to “provide the necessities of life” for you or your dependents. (Publication 1546.) Whether or not a taxpayer advocate will give you emergency assistance depends on her view of the seriousness of your hardship. The IRS Problems Resolution Program Handbook advises taxpayer advocates as follows:
Generally, when deciding the presence of a significant hardship, accept any application unless there is a clear reason not to do so. Any doubt should be resolved in the taxpayer’s favor.
Most taxpayer advocates take this obligation seriously and really try to help, particularly if this is your first time in trouble with the IRS.
To get the taxpayer advocate to act, you must show more than that the IRS has harmed you or is about to do so. For example, an IRS seizure is not, in and of itself, a significant hardship. The IRS’s seizure or other drastic action must jeopardize:
- your ability to obtain or keep shelter, food, and clothing for you and your family
- your transportation to work
- your employment
- your ability to get medical care for yourself or your family
- your education
- your credit rating, or
- your ability to meet a business payroll or stay out of bankruptcy (the IRS is less likely to help a business than an individual, however).
Taxpayer advocates consider evidence of your being overwhelmed by the enormity of the tax situation. They are instructed to be sensitive to your emotional state, whether it is tears or talk of doing yourself in. Far be it from me to suggest that you have a nervous breakdown in front of a taxpayer advocate, but….
Under Internal Revenue Manual 1279 (10)(70), the IRS cannot hold against you the following:
- the degree you were at fault in causing the hardship
- your past history of IRS difficulties, if any
- the type of tax that you owe—income, payroll, or property, and so on, or
- the taxpayer advocate’s opinions and values—for instance, if part of your problem stems from a charitable donation you made to the Church of Snake Worshippers, the taxpayer advocate can’t consider her distaste for snakes in deciding whether to help you.
Getting Hardship Relief—Calling the IRS’s 911 Line
For emergency help, request a Taxpayer Assistance Order by calling your local Taxpayer Advocate Service office (the toll-free telephone number is 877-777-4778). Don’t expect to get through to a taxpayer advocate immediately. Leave your telephone number for a call back, usually within 24 to 48 hours.
Or, request a Taxpayer Assistance Order in writing by using IRS Form 911, Application for Taxpayer Assistance Order. All IRS offices have this form. To order by phone, call 800-829-3676. Or go to the IRS’s website at www.irs.gov. The website form can be filled in online if you have the computer capability (the Adobe Reader program is available online for no charge).
A completed sample is shown below. Once you’ve filled in Form 911, mail, fax, or hand deliver it to the IRS at either the local office or an IRS campus. (See Publication 1546.) It is not complicated, so there’s no need to hire a tax professional to request a Taxpayer Assistance Order.
Expect a telephone call from the taxpayer advocate within one to two days to let you know if your problem will be handled and the name of the person working on it.
Nationwide, the IRS claims that it helps about half of all taxpayers who apply for Taxpayer Assistance Orders. In most cases, however, the taxpayer advocate won’t formally issue an order requiring the IRS to stop certain action. Typically, relief is granted informally, without an official order.
Submit a 911 form to the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service any time you feel that the IRS is ignoring you or treating you unfairly. It is easy to do, and you have absolutely nothing to lose. Filing the form requires the IRS to act quickly. Request an IRS employee to complete the Form 911 for you if it is an emergency. You can do this in person or over the phone.
- The Taxpayer Advocate Service helps folks with problems they are having with regular IRS channels.
- A taxpayer advocate cuts through IRS red tape and provides emergency relief in special cases.
- Contact the Taxpayer Advocate Service by calling 877-777-4778 (toll free).