The Taxpayer Advocate Service describes itself as "your voice" inside the IRS. The service isn't a complaint department or an all-purpose help desk. Rather, it's designed to be a "safety net"—a team of specialists who can step in when taxpayers are experiencing problems that can't easily be handled through the IRS's normal channels.
Four main service areas
Congress created the Taxpayer Advocate Service as an independent office, operating outside the normal IRS chain of command, to protect taxpayers' rights. The Taxpayer Advocate Service says the cases it accepts fall into four main categories:
- Time-sensitive matters.
- Issues involving multiple IRS units.
- Breakdowns in the IRS's normal process.
- Situations in which a taxpayer has unique circumstances, but the IRS is applying a "one-size-fits-all" rule.
The service says it takes other cases, too, such as those referred to it by a member of Congress or those in which a taxpayer is suffering a severe economic burden. But because of high demand, it generally sticks to cases in the main categories. The "Get Help" section of the service's website, taxpayeradvocate.irs.gov, has answers to many common tax questions.
Time-sensitive matters are those in which taxpayers are experiencing an emergency or financial hardship, and they need the IRS to move faster than normal or they will face an even greater hardship.
For example, say the IRS has a federal tax lien on a property that you need to sell immediately to avoid bankruptcy. You have paid the taxes necessary to lift the lien, but the IRS hasn't yet processed all the paperwork. The Taxpayer Advocate Service could help get the lien lifted.
Another example would be needing your tax refund as soon as possible to avoid eviction; the service might be able to expedite your refund.
Multiple IRS units
Problems can arise when a taxpayer has a problem that involves multiple departments within the IRS. For example, the division that processes refunds might not be able to release money to a taxpayer until it gets confirmation from the collections department that a lien has been paid off, but the collections department can't sign off until paperwork has been processed by a third office.
In these kinds of cases, the Taxpayer Advocate Service says it can act as a "traffic cop" to coordinate action among the departments and get the problem resolved.
Breakdowns in the process
The IRS has more than 90,000 employees responsible for processing more than 200 million annual returns, accommodating about 1.5 million tax-exempt groups, and enforcing a tax code—written by Congress, not the IRS—that includes 3.7 million words.
Though it has procedures in place to handle most taxpayer problems, complications occur, just like in any large enterprise:
- Paperwork gets lost
- Case files get shuffled from one place to another
- People with critical knowledge change jobs
If you have a tax problem, have tried to resolve it through the standard procedures and are getting nowhere, the Taxpayer Advocate Service can help clear the logjam.
The final major service area the Taxpayer Advocate Service deals with is unusual tax or legal circumstances that the IRS's ordinary procedures may not be equipped to handle. According to the service, it can intervene on a taxpayer's behalf in these kinds of situations:
- When IRS staff prefers an inappropriate one-size-fits-all solution to special circumstances.
- When IRS staff doesn't acknowledge that the rules in place don't apply to the situation at hand.
- When IRS staff doesn't listen, or appears not to understand, when taxpayers try to explain their situation.
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