2016 Tax Season Opens Smoothly

The IRS officially kicked off tax season this year on January 19th, one day after the Martin Luther King holiday. This marked the first day that the IRS would accept, and begin processing, 2015 federal income tax returns. The IRS said in an official statement that they had received several hundred thousand tax returns up through mid-day and that the 2016 tax season was off to a smooth start.

I don’t know how efficiently they will be processing returns this year (they say that most returns will be processed in 21 days or less), but I can personally vouch for the smoothness of the phone lines, at least on the first day of tax season. I made a few calls on the 19th, and got through surprisingly quickly on the Practitioner Priority Line (PPL), with a similar result when calling the Automated Collections System (ACS) for some of my collections cases. January has often been a terrible time to call the IRS (especially the first half of the month) because people have been away from their offices for the holidays and when they come back it seems like everybody wants to catch up on work at the same time. It is especially bad the day after a federal holiday, so I was surprised how prepared the IRS was on day one of tax season right after MLK.

The IRS expects more than 150 million individual tax returns this year. It may go without saying, but that figure does not include business returns, and it does not include any prior-year tax returns or amended returns that the IRS receives this tax season. The IRS also anticipates that around 80 percent of all returns will be filed electronically. It is always astounding to me that this figure is not up around 99 percent yet. I just can’t imagine filing a paper tax return and don’t understand why people still do it. I suppose the hold-outs are those who like the idea of saving a few bucks (when you paper file, all you pay is the cost of postage) and those who basically want to stick it to the man. This quote I found says it all:

Why should I pay through the nose to save the government money? What rational individual wants to pay $10 or more to save the government $4?

So the IRS received hundreds of thousands of returns within the first few hours of tax season, day one. I guess that means a couple hundred thousand more will be arriving tomorrow or Friday in the post. Queue the letter openers.

 
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TAS Not Happy with IRS “Future Plan”

The IRS is devising nefarious plans behind our backs. According to the National Taxpayer Advocate’s (TAS) annual report to Congress, for the past year and a half the IRS has been developing a “future state” plan whereby it will drastically cut back on the face-to-face and telephone assistance it provides to taxpayers. This isn’t really new; the IRS has for some time now been trying to redirect taxpayers and point them towards irs.gov to find answers to their questions because they don’t have sufficient funding and they don’t have sufficient personnel to provide one-on-one help to everyone who seeks it. The only difference now is that they appear to be doing something about it, albeit secretively.

Implicit in the plan — and explicit in internal discussion — is an intention on the part of the IRS to substantially reduce telephone and face-to-face interaction with taxpayers.

~ TAS 2016 Annual Report to Congress

Nina Olsen, head of TAS, stated that these plans should be made public so that taxpayers and tax professionals can have their voices heard and so they can be prepared for whatever changes come their way. Also, she says, the IRS needs to be specific about how much it will be cutting back on personal service. So far the IRS has done nothing to make their “future state” plan public or to solicit comments and input from stakeholders.

The IRS contends that TAS is misjudging their “future state” plan. According to the IRS, as they beef up alternative “self-service interactions,” it frees up phone lines for those who are not comfortable with online resources. The problem with this line of thinking is it assumes that those who call the IRS are not comfortable with researching their issue on the IRS website. I think the number of people who avoid the IRS website because they don’t have a computer or they don’t know how to research an issue online is relatively small. If people have specific questions and they think they can find the answer online, they’ll look online. But if they need a dialogue or if they have a series of question, or if they have a unique set of fact (which is very common), or if they need something more than a cookie cutter black & white answer, then they turn to the phone. I have been involved in the tax industry, and more specifically tax resolution, for about 10 years, and can confidently say that if there is any chance I can find the help I need on the IRS website, I will definitely go there before dedicating an entire afternoon to the IRS telephonic abyss.

 
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PCA Version 3.0

Are you ready for PCA version 3.0? For the third time in the history of the Internal Revenue Service, the government approved (and in certain instances mandated) the usage of private collection agencies (PCAs) for the purpose of assisting with the collection of federal taxes. The provision is part of some new highway funding legislation called the FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation).

The use of PCAs in the collection of tax revenue is controversial. First, and perhaps foremost, the IRS has not been able to show that it actually works — that is, they have not shown that it is cost effective to hire these outside private collection firms. The last time the IRS integrated PCA firms into their collection processes was in 2006/2007. Some will argue that the IRS was able to collect billions of dollars that they otherwise would not have collected with their limited resources. Some contend that the fees charged by the PCA firms cancel out most of the revenue they collected. I don’t know who is right, but one fact cannot be ignored: the IRS discontinued the program after only a couple years. If it were such a wild success, I am certain the government would have found a way to make it last.

Another argument against PCAs is the risk that they will engage in abusive collection tactics. I think this is a legitimate concern, but I personally do not have this fear. I remember PCA version 2.0 back in 2007 and the private collectors that I dealt with were much more civil than the IRS ever was.

There are some tax professionals (and probably even more concerned taxpayers) who really dislike the idea of giving sensitive information to PCA firms. We have seen how the IRS has struggled with safeguarding sensitive taxpayer data, and they’ve had 100 years to try to get it right. So the thought of the IRS turning over social security numbers to a less-experienced private collection firm is rather disconcerting.

Besides these well-documented concerns, what I experienced first-hand in 2007 was that the PCA firms were not given authority to fully resolve certain tax accounts, which caused unnecessary delays and heightened taxpayer frustration. Imagine getting a letter from a PCA firm and then calling them only to find out that your case will have to be referred back to the IRS. The IRS is already notorious for red tape and delays, and if its anything like 2007, I fear this new legislation will only makes things worse.

 
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IRS Puts Reins on Stingray Technology

It will be Christmas time soon and thoughts often turn to gift giving and getting. For some, the gift they would like most is the latest high tech toy. This year one of the hottest tech gifts is the Hoverboard. Next year it could be a personal rocket ship. Boys will be boys, and they tend to enjoy imagining themselves starring in a James Bond flick with the latest technology at their fingertips.

The boys at the IRS are no different, although some of them are surely lamenting the potential limitations placed on their toy commonly knows as the Stingray. The Stingray is a cell phone surveillance device that can mimic a wireless cell tower, intercepting signals and giving the user private cell data of anyone in the area. Special agents with IRS Criminal Investigations have used this device since 2011 to track down some big time tax criminals.

Under pressure from the Justice Department, the IRS has begun drafting rules that would require their employees to obtain a warrant before using this controversial device. Of course a warrant requires a finding of probably cause by a judge, and if you’ve ever seen any crime shows on TV you know it’s a pain to have to get a warrant.

The IRS apparently has only one Stingray now, but they ordered a second one back in July. It hasn’t arrived yet, which I’m sure has the CI boys as anxious as 8-year-olds on Christmas Eve.

 
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Congrats! You’re a Partner with the IRS

On March 19, 2015 IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen, brought together representatives from the IRS, the states, and the private sector tax industry in what he called the Security Summit Group to discuss ways to combat identity theft and, specifically, identity theft that results in tax fraud. Private sector representatives included the likes of CEOs of leading tax prep firms, software developers, and payroll processors. For the first two months, the SSG met “continuously” to collaborate and brainstorm. One of the ideas that has come out of these meetings is that there is no silver bullet for putting an end to identity theft and that we need to adopt a “multi-layered and coordinated approach.” Another big idea, announced by Koskinen in a statement yesterday, is that there is a key Security Summit partner that, until now, has been left out of the equation: YOU.

We’ve made a great deal of progress for the upcoming tax season, and it shows just how much we can accomplish working together. But to keep making progress, there is another partner we need to bring on board, and that’s the taxpaying public. In fact, that’s why we’re announcing this new effort, called “Taxes-Security-Together.” We all have a part to play in fighting identity theft.

Koskinen says that now is the best time to begin this new initiative. I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically says that there will be a bunch of new electronic devices bought over the next couple months (ok, Christmas time, I follow), and people will be doing their taxes and making other transactions on these devices (um, people do their taxes on phones? really?) and a significant number of these potential ID theft portals will fall into the hands of people who don’t know how to use them, and it behooves us to help them to use them safely. This seems like a really tenuous “slippery slope” kind of thought process here, but ok. Now I’m interested to know if identity theft typically spikes in December or something.

But, needless to say, it feels pretty awesome to be a member of the Security Summit Group. I’m waiting eagerly by the mailbox for my badge and lanyard. As a member in good standing of the SSG, I would like to commend the Commissioner on his Taxes-Security-Together initiative. It sounds like fun. However, I also would like him to tell me how he plans on getting these messages out to those who really need to hear them. I will prepare now for what promises to be a barrage of public service announcements via YouTube, Facebook, and wherever else the IRS has a presence. But if you’re not connected with the IRS online somehow, either by “liking” or “following” or subscribing to their emails, just how are you going to catch wind of these tips and announcements? And between a tax professional and the general public, who do you think would benefit most from hearing them? There is no one silver bullet, but at least some bullets should hit some targets for this initiative to be successful.

 
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How Much Help is your Tax Preparer?

Can your tax preparer help you if you run into trouble with the IRS? It depends on what kind of trouble, but generally your everyday, average tax preparer cannot do everything necessary to resolve your tax issues.

If your tax preparer is either an enrolled agent, certified public accountant, or tax attorney, then you will likely have all the authority you need in your corner to address whatever the problem might be. Although attorneys are often better suited for assisting with collection, litigation, and tax court matters. The IRS sees these three categories of tax professionals as having “unlimited representation rights.”

But if your tax preparer does not possess one of these three credentials, then the amount of help he can provide is very limited. Tax preparers who are not EAs, CPAs, or attorneys (also known as “unenrolled preparers”) may only represent taxpayers on issues having to do with returns that they personally prepared. And even then, if the issues escalate to the level of the IRS Collections Department, IRS Appeals, or beyond, they must turn it over to an EA, CPA, or attorney (or the taxpayer may try to handle it on his own). If the dispute cannot be resolved administratively and makes its way up to US Tax Court, then it should certainly be handled by an experienced tax attorney, but it can also be handled by an EA or CPA who has been admitted to practice before the Tax Court. And, of course, the taxpayer still has the option to go at it alone as a “pro se” litigant in Tax Court.

It is one thing to say that someone has the authority to help you, but it is quite another thing to say that they have the skills, experience, and desire to help you. I have met a number of Enrolled Agents that are qualified to represent their clients in audits and IRS disputes, but who simply do not choose to do that as part of their business.  And those who make the decision to pass on those types of cases, never gain the necessary experience and skills to represent a taxpayer competently in such matters. Unenrolled preparers are even less likely to include IRS representation as part of their repertoire.

Although nobody anticipates getting into trouble with the IRS, and it can’t really be predicted, these are a few things to keep in mind when selecting a tax preparer. And according to the IRS, November is a good time to make that decision.

 
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GOP Wants Hillary Audited

What’s the worst threat you can think of? The answer to this question probably depends on who you ask. My teenage daughter might say taking away her phone or the threat of somebody unfollowing her on Instagram. If you ask any normal adult person, it might be the threat of physical harm. But if you ask somebody in my circle of friends, it would definitely be the threat of an IRS audit.  There are few things more agonizing than the dreaded audit.

The Republican Party is threatening Hillary Clinton and her family’s charity, the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), not with legal action, but with an IRS audit. Of course, they can’t audit her themselves; they filed a formal complaint asking the IRS to audit the charity. CHAI staved off an investigation back in May by agreeing to file amended returns and fix the problem. But now they are taking the position that the income was correctly stated and amendments are not necessary. As the Democratic front runner, Hillary will undoubtedly attract plenty of scrutiny, and the Republicans will do their best to portray her as a tax cheat.

 
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House Republicans Seek Impeachment of IRS Commish

Two days ago the Justice Department formally closed its investigation of alleged targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service. DOJ found that Lois Lerner and other top IRS managers were guilty of “mismanagement, poor judgment, and institutional inertia,” but had done nothing criminal. This scandal began in 2013 and has been a hot topic in tax professional circles and among anyone interested in government & politics. Over the course of these past two and a half years, the IRS has been investigated by TIGTA, the Justice Department, and even the FBI. Some IRS officials involved in the scandal have resigned under the pressure. Even so, the DOJ stated that there was no evidence that any IRS official obstructed justice or attempted to obstruct justice. Big win for the IRS.

But GOP lawmakers don’t want to put this scandal to rest until justice has been served. Their target is IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen, and they’re not interested in settling with contempt or obstruction charges; they want to impeach him. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and 18 other republicans have initiated the seldom-used impeachment process against Commissioner John Koskinen, which will go through the House Judiciary Committee next. Those who support impeachment of Koskinen claim that he has violated the public trust by lying about the existence of emails, or deleting emails, or allowing emails to be deleted on his watch, or any combination of these things. The IRS, of course, insists that it has fully cooperated with any and all investigations, spending upwards of $20 million and 160,000 employee hours in the process.

Interesting footnote: pursuing impeachment against an agency official is rare. Back in 1876 Congress tried to impeach War Secretary, William Belknap, but he resigned before conclusion of the process. Belknap, known as a man of virtues and flaws, was secretary to President Grant, and an attorney by trade. He went back to that trade after it was discovered that he had been involved in bribes and in selling weapons to France.

 
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FTB Penalties at Every Turn

Can anyone keep track of all the different California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) fees and penalties? If you owe taxes, you’ve got to keep an eye on them, or your tax liability can quickly get out of hand. At a minimum, you should know that they exist.

The most obvious penalties are the “late filing penalty” and the “late payment penalty.” The late filing penalty is imposed for filing after April 15th, or after the extended due date, as the case may be. The amount of this penalty is 25 percent of the amount due. The late payment penalty is assessed if the full tax on the return is not paid by the original due date. The penalty is 5 percent of the amount that was not paid, plus .5 percent monthly, until it is paid (subject to a 25 percent maximum).

Other common penalties include the “estimated tax penalty” and the “demand to file penalty.” Obviously if you are required to make estimated tax payments and you either don’t pay in full or pay late, you’ll be subject to the estimated tax penalty. The demand to file penalty is almost what you’d think. If FTB sends you a letter demanding that you file a certain tax return, or provide certain information, and you disregard it, they will impose a 25 percent penalty. The catch is that they figure the penalty based on the FTB’s assessment before applying any payments or credits (not your own return), which sometimes has seemingly unfair results. Where else might you owe penalties and interest even if your tax return shows that a refund is due? Not with the IRS, that’s for sure.  The IRS does not typically care if you file a return if that return is going to result in a refund.

I do understand the rationale of requiring a return, even if reported income and withholding information suggests that no tax would be due. The reasoning is that the FTB simply wants the taxpayer to certify (by filing a return) that there is no additional income or taxable events that may have not been reported by third parties.

There are also a number of “cost recovery fees” that could be imposed by FTB that drive up the balance of a tax bill. FTB charges a fee if your account is assigned to filing enforcement or to collections. There are also fees associated with filing a tax lien or seizing and selling property. You can read all about FTB collection procedures in publication 1140.

 
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The Taxonomy of IRS letters

Science has documented and named something like 900,000 different insect species. Interestingly, most authorities agree that the number of insect species that have not been named far exceeds the number that have been named. We can only estimate what this number might be: anywhere between 2 million and 30 million.

And this is where I draw a strange comparison between insects and IRS correspondence. It won’t seem all that strange if you have ever received IRS mail over an extended period of time. The comparison certainly isn’t that tenuous from the perspective of a tax attorney who sees an endless stream of every type of IRS correspondence show up in the office. Based on a recent TIGTA audit report, the IRS sent out over 141 million notices and 37 million letters during fiscal year 2014. That’s a lot of mail, but knowing how many people that they have to reach, these numbers seem reasonable. However, the variety of IRS letters and notices (like the variety of bug species) is apparently too large for the IRS to wrap its brain around. There are 2,749 types of letters and 195 types of notices currently in circulation.

TIGTA conducted this audit in order to follow up on a project that was initiated years ago wherein the IRS was supposed to remove social security numbers from forms, letters, and notices (due to identity theft concerns) except in cases where the SSN is absolutely necessary. The project was supposed to be completed in 2009, but the IRS put it off due to budget cuts and the need to focus efforts elsewhere. TIGTA found that the IRS has fixed only 2 percent of its letters and 48 percent of notices. Not only does the IRS not have a plan for completing this project and removing social security numbers, it does not even have a process or procedure for identifying correspondence with unnecessary SSNs. IRS management is apparently overwhelmed by the variety of correspondence; they are on record saying that compiling a list of all correspondence is more costly an endeavor than it appears. So what is the best way to describe the relationship between IRS correspondence and the world’s insect population? They’re everywhere and we don’t even know what most of them are.

 
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