IRS Error Rate Still High

Published March 1, 2004

The January 2004 report of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration [TIGTA] confirms the IRS’s error rate for advice it gives at its hundreds of walk-in Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs) remains unacceptably high.

The report reveals the IRS provided “flatly incorrect answers 20 percent of the time.” In another 15 percent of the cases, the IRS provided a “correct” answer without first obtaining the background information necessary to provide a correct answer–a serious oversight when providing tax advice.

Know Your Facts and Rules?

A father might ask, for example, whether it’s legal to claim his child as a dependent on his tax return. One might simply answer yes and be correct, but only in a very broad sense. Without knowing all the facts about that child, it is very possible the correct answer for that particular father is no. For example, in a situation where the parents are divorced and legal custody of the child rests with the mother, it is not allowable for the father to claim the child as a dependent unless the mother signs a written waiver granting the exemption to the father.

The problem here is that most citizens just don’t know all the rules. Consequently, citizens don’t know what information to provide to the IRS as background for their question, and they have no way to ascertain whether the IRS asked sufficient questions to obtain the necessary facts.

When this kind of incomplete advice is factored in, the total inaccuracy rate rises to a troubling 35 percent.

Do Your Own Research?

One equally troubling aspect of the report indicates that in about 3 percent of the cases, IRS employees essentially told Treasury investigators to “do their own research.” Rather than helping to find the correct answer to the question, the IRS simply referred investigators to publications to find the answers for themselves. Considering the often convoluted and technical nature of IRS publications, this is not only unreasonable … it’s a violation of the directives under which TAC employees are supposed to operate. Their job, after all, is to answer the questions posed by confused taxpayers, not send them off on a quest for answers potentially buried in thousands of pages of publications.

It is important to note the questions asked by Treasury investigators were not esoteric tax law inquiries. All the questions pointed at narrow, relatively simple areas of law that TAC employees are trained in and expected to know. Given this, it is reasonable to expect and demand that TAC employees get it right–period. TAC employees are not being trained adequately.

This brings up another disturbing aspect of the investigation. When TAC employees are asked a question that is outside the scope of their training, they are required by operating guidelines to refer the questions to other, more qualified, IRS personnel. However, in 31 percent of the cases, TAC employees answered questions outside the scope of their training, in violation of the regulations. So at a time when TAC employees cannot provide error-free answers to questions in areas they are trained in, they are taking stabs at answering questions in areas they are not trained in. We can only guess what the error rate is for those answers.

Will the Problem Get Worse?

The National Taxpayer Advocate’s (NTA) 2003 Annual Report to Congress, released in January 2004, suggests we can expect this problem to get worse. The Taxpayer Advocate reports the IRS is “reducing the resources dedicated to providing taxpayer assistance, while at the same time, beefing up its enforcement arsenal.” The result, according to the NTA, is “a declining trend in providing services” to those in need and an “increase in taxpayer burden.”

Why can’t the IRS get it right, even in relatively simple areas of the law? The answer is provided by former Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti, in a statement addressing the reason for the error rate in the IRS’s telephone assistance function.

Said Rossotti, “Fundamentally, we are attempting the impossible. We are expecting employees and our managers to be trained in areas that are far too broad to ever succeed, and our manuals and training courses are, therefore, unmanageable in scope and complexity.”

Daniel J. Pilla is a nationally known tax litigation specialist and executive director of the Tax Freedom Institute. He has written eleven books on taxpayers’ rights issues and IRS defense strategies.

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