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When the Taxpayer Advocate Service can, and can't, help

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Helping hand photo by Lalesh Aldarwish via Pexels.com

I'm a big fan of the Taxpayer Advocate Service. Part of that, as long-time readers know, is because I was fortunate enough to serve on the Taxpayer Advocacy Panel (TAP), a volunteer group created to help the Internal Revenue Service meet and improve on the promise of the final word in the agency's name.

My years with TAP let me see how TAS and the IRS work to help solve taxpayer problems. And yes, the people committed to this process really do care and do all they can to help taxpayers within the system.

That phrase, within the system, is key.

As organized, TAS can't take just any IRS-related problem and solve it to affected taxpayers' complete satisfaction. Advocates' efforts are constrained by certain rules and parameters.

That hard reality is being felt especially as we all cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. TAS and the National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins are painfully aware of this and are trying to get the word out to individuals about what TAS can and cannot do.

More than normal refund issues: One complaint area to which taxpayers are turning to TAS for help, even more than usual this year, is the slow delivery of tax refunds.

It's a perennial problem, even in more normal tax times. In fact, it topped Collins' list of the 10 most serious problems facing taxpayers, which was part of her Annual Report to Congress released back in January.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic contributing to work backlogs at the IRS, the cries of taxpayers seeking help getting refunds have increased.

The TAS hears you, but in most refund delay cases, it is hamstrung. The taxpayer assistance service recently elaborated on its website:

The Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) is aware that taxpayers are experiencing more refund delays this year than usual. Typically, the IRS processes electronic returns and pays refunds within 21 days of receipt. However, the high volume of 2020 tax returns being filed daily, backlog of unprocessed 2019 paper tax returns, IRS resource issues, and technology problems are causing delays. This is due, in part, to the IRS’s need to manually verify large numbers of Refund Recovery Credits (RRCs), as well as Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Advance Child Tax Credit (ACTC) 2019 adjusted income lookback claims. Once a return is processed by the IRS and loaded on to the IRS systems, TAS may be able to assist with delayed refunds if you meet our case criteria. …

TAS_Help_with_Delayed_Refunds_Is_LimitedCurrently, the vast majority of processing delays result from tax returns not loaded onto the IRS system or in "suspense" status awaiting IRS action. To date, over 6 million electronic returns have been "suspended" due to issues requiring manual processing or return inconsistencies. Until these returns move out of suspense status, neither the IRS nor TAS can access these cases to work them or provide taxpayers with any additional information. TAS cannot accept refund delay cases that are in suspense, including requests for assistance made through the Systemic Advocacy Management System (SAMS). Until the tax return is posted on the IRS system, neither TAS nor the IRS can see or access the return information. And until TAS can see the return on the system, we cannot advocate to resolve any issues. …

TAS understands the frustrations and hardships caused by these unprecedented circumstances. Please be patient if you learn your refund claim is not yet processed and understand why TAS cannot accept your case at this time. We continue to work with the IRS to identify ways to address this backlog. TAS will continue to update its case acceptance criteria as the situation changes. …

Use regular channels first: Until the returns are moved out of suspended status or processed, the best advice that I, the IRS and the Taxpayer Advocate Service can give is to check the IRS' online Where's My Refund tool.

Taxpayer Advocate Service_refund status advice

This refund search option provides the most current information on return processing. It's updated once a day, usually in the evenings.

I know. It's not the answer you wanted. But right now, it's what we've got.

Areas where TAS can help: As I said, I know some Advocates and they are sincere in wanting to help. But the Taxpayer Advocate Service, despite all its good intentions and laudable work, is not a miracle agency.

It can't take just any IRS-related problem and solve it to affected taxpayers' complete satisfaction. TAS efforts are constrained by certain rules and parameters.

The two key ones are that —

  1. You or your business' tax problem is producing severe and imminent financial difficulties, and
  2. You, as an individual or on behalf of your business, have tried all regular avenues to resolve the matter with the IRS, but to no avail.

If you've hit that brick wall, then TAS might be able to help. But again, there are other requirements before it takes your case.

Additional TAS help criteria: TAS notes on its website that generally it helps taxpayers whose tax issues fall into one of the following four main categories:

  • Financial Hardship: An economic burden case is one where an IRS action or inaction has caused or will cause negative financial consequences or have a long-term adverse impact on the taxpayer. You'll need to describe the financial hardship and you may be required to provide documentation to verify the economic burden.
  • IRS System Issue: A systemic issue warranting TAS involvement is one where an IRS process, system or procedure has failed to operate as intended. As a result, the IRS has failed to respond in a timely manner or to resolve the affected taxpayer's issue.
  • Fair and Equitable Treatment: This area is pretty self-explanatory, but here's a bit more from TAS on such cases. Taxpayer treatment cases are those where the ways the IRS is administering tax laws raises considerations of equity or has impaired or will impair the taxpayers' rights. TAS intervenes to help ensure that doesn't happen.
  • Public Policy: Under this category, the National Taxpayer Advocate has final say on what is compelling public policy that warrants taxpayer assistance. Involvement here generally is based on a unique set of circumstances to certain taxpayers.

More on each of these TAS categories can be found in its case acceptance criteria document.

You also can use the TAS online case criteria tool to determine if the office may be able to help in your situation.

Note, however, TAS says that while its qualifier tool may indicate TAS can assist with your tax issue, the final determination will be made by one of the office's Advocates.

Patience now, more help when it's able: The bottom line is that, in most cases, if you're waiting for your refund, there's really nothing the Taxpayer Advocate Service can do. You'll just have to be patient.

But if you ever encounter more serious and difficult to resolve issues with the IRS, then check into getting TAS help.  

And even if you never need TAS' assistance, which I hope is the case, you still should check out how it works to be Your Voice at the IRS. You can find more on the at TAS' website, Twitter feed, Facebook page, YouTube channel, and the National Taxpayer Advocate's blog.

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