For most Americans, paying taxes is an unpleasant experience, and dealing with the IRS an unwanted nuisance. Things are about to get worse as the agency acknowledges that its customer service is deteriorating.
Remember sequestration? Congress passed legislation to automatically cut the federal budget to lower the deficit. Since 2010, the IRS budget has been pared 17 percent, resulting in 12,000 fewer employees. And the training budget has been chopped by 83 percent, leaving remaining employees ill prepared to deal with an ever-changing tax code. This year the IRS and taxpayers will grapple with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act for the first time.
In a report to Congress dated Jan. 14, 2015, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson called the situation at the IRS a “downward slide” and urged lawmakers to enact a Taxpayer Bill of Rights to ensure customer service.
Olson’s warning is shocking. She predicts that less than half of all taxpayer calls will even be answered this year, just 43 percent. The typical wait time for calls will balloon to 30 minutes (up from 2.5 minutes in 2004). And once you get through to a live person, you’ll get less information. During the tax filing season, IRS employees will only answer very basic tax law questions and after April 15, they won’t answer tax law questions at all. You will be forced to figure things out on your own or hire a tax professional.
“We do not think it is acceptable for the government to tell millions of taxpayers who seek help each year, in essence, ‘We’re sorry. You’re on your own,’” the report says.
Each year, the IRS receives more than 100 million telephone calls, 10 million letters, and 5 million visits at its walk-in sites. So what should you do to ensure the customer service that you deserve? Follow these steps:
- Prepare your taxes early. If you have questions, seek the answers immediately. The majority of taxpayers wait until April to file their taxes, so early action will mean less competition for the reduced staff.
- Use tax preparation software such as Turbo Tax or H & R Block. Most software can be purchased for under $50, and the software will walk you through the process step-by-step.
- If your return is too complicated to handle yourself, consider using the services of a tax preparation company or accountant. The few hundred dollars that you spend could save you thousands in interest and penalties. Ask respected associates for referrals.
- If your calls to the IRS go unanswered, visit a walk-in site. Use the online locator screen to find the nearest Taxpayer Assistance Center. In recent years the IRS has concentrated resources around populated areas. As a result, travel and wait times have actually gone down in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, while increasing in rural America.
After years of recommending to Congress that it pass a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, the agency acted on its own in 2014 to adopt the policy. It includes, “The Right to Quality Service: Taxpayers have the right to receive prompt, courteous, and professional assistance in their dealings with the IRS, to be spoken to in a way they can easily understand, to receive clear and easily understandable communications from the IRS, and to speak to a supervisor about inadequate service.” Olsen continues to advocate Congressional action to put teeth into the policy.