IRS and the Plain Writing Act

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) recently audited the IRS’ compliance with the Plain Writing Act of 2010.  The Plain Writing Act is not what you think.  It doesn’t restrict descriptive writing by novelists and it doesn’t proscribe writing guidelines at public elementary schools.  The Plain Writing Act was enacted so as to ensure that documents, letters, and notices produced by the federal government are written clearly and in a manner that the average citizen can understand.  Some government agencies, the IRS included, have a lot of room for improvement.

I’m an attorney so, arguably, I am no expert on plain writing myself.  But I know it when I see it, and I haven’t seen much of it in all my dealings with the IRS.  TIGTA agrees with me, identifying the following issues in its report:

  • IRS unable to compile a comprehensive list of all its letters
  • technical writers not sufficiently trained on plain writing standards
  • managers’ quality review process is insufficient
  • IRS letter review process does not always result in plainly written letters

It may seem odd to you that the IRS could not provide TIGTA with a master list of its letters.  However, tax attorneys, tax accountants, and almost any tax professional would not be surprised by this admission.  We’re talking about form letters — templates — and each one has multiple variations that can be used to try to fit the particular circumstances that the IRS wants to address.  Anyone who has had dealings with the IRS has seen their fair share of IRS notices.  In its report TIGTA does not refer to them as a body, or series, or collection of letters, but rather a “universe” of letters.  What a perfect description!  How could one even begin to catalog a collection of letters that can be described as a UNIVERSE?

In my experience, it is not so much the content of individual letters that is confusing, but the letter process as a whole.  Yes, individual letters can be confusing, but what about when the IRS sends three copies in the same envelope, forcing you to compare them side by side to ensure there are no differences?  What about when they are chock-full of publications you’ve already seen?  Or when they seem so say nothing more than “we have heard from you in some manner and we will get back to you when we can”?  My complaint is that the IRS tends to be overly communicative when it comes to information you don’t need, and uncommunicative when it comes to addressing your real concerns.

IRS Summons

If you have IRS tax debt, you probably receive more IRS mail than you care to admit.  Some of our clients receive so many IRS notices and letters that it becomes difficult to keep up with them.  Obviously, it is very important to open and read every single correspondence you receive from the IRS.  But one type of notice ranks right up at the top in terms of priority: the IRS Summons (Form 2039).

The IRS uses the summons to secure documents and records from taxpayers, normally only after informal attempts have been made without success.  The IRS is typically trying to ascertain the accuracy of a tax return, to determine the liability of a taxpayer, or to collect back taxes.

One way or another, you must respond to your summons.  One of the reasons the summons is so important is if you fail to comply, the IRS employee who issued the summons may seek to enforce it in court.  If so, a judge could hold you in contempt of court, which means you could be fined and/or thrown in prison.

If you receive a summons, you should seriously consider hiring legal counsel to help you to respond and to protect your interests.