‘Voice of the taxpayer’ says IRS needs to think about the people
By Jenna Box (4JM)
Just as tax-filing season opened Jan. 31, tax-law gurus and LL.M. candidates gathered at UF Law to hear an unusual type of tax law lecture.
National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson talked in detail about her job dealing with systemic problems in tax administration — a stark difference from the usual doctrinal law and transactional planning lessons that law school classes in taxation focus on.
As the “voice of the taxpayer” to the IRS, Olson helps taxpayers who are dealing with the IRS in return preparation, audits or collection of assessed tax liabilities, said Professor Martin J. McMahon Jr., of UF Law’s Graduate Tax Program. These taxpayers are usually not represented by lawyers or other tax professionals, and they depend upon the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate to resolve their issues.
“That is a major part of my job, to ensure that the IRS administers the code fairly and effectively for all,” Olson said. “But I also have the mission, as Marty noted, that I am the voice of the taxpayer. So part of my job is to really make clear to the IRS that they need to think about the taxpayers that the tax law isn’t just administered for its convenience — what’s convenient for itself, convenient for its employees — but there are living, breathing people out there and striving enterprises out there that their needs need to be paid attention to.”
The Taxpayer Advocate Service has offices and staff in every state and is an independent agency within the IRS. Along with assisting taxpayers, Olson addresses problems in the tax code and recommends changes to prevent those problems. As chief of the agency, Olson said she oversees more than 6,000 employees across the country and prepares a several-hundred page report to Congress twice a year outlining systemic issues in the administration of the tax system. In her 13 years in the position, Olson has made about 150 proposals for legislative action and 15 of them have been enacted into law by Congress.
In her Jan. 9 report to Congress, she writes: “The IRS makes little effort to personally communicate with taxpayers after the issuance of the initial collection notices — a significant percentage of which are sent to addresses that the IRS knows are ‘undeliverable.’ Thus, millions of collection accounts sit silently in the queue for months and years, leading taxpayers to believe the IRS is ignoring the debt — which it is. When the debt gets large enough, the IRS may assign the case to a collection employee, but by then, the debt is substantially larger by virtue of penalties and interest. By this point, for many taxpayers, these debts have become impossible to resolve.”
Since its origination in 2000, Olson’s agency has advocated for more than 2 million taxpayers facing similar issues with the IRS’ system and has resolved about 75 percent of the cases to the satisfaction of its customers.
“It can take years on some of the cases to get everything straightened out,” Olson said. “We cannot in ourselves go into the system and fix that system. We cannot decide an audit case. …We can’t make the IRS release a levy.
“We can say, ‘IRS, based on the law, based on this taxpayer’s facts and circumstances, you should stop garnishing their wages.’ But we have to get the IRS to agree to that. That is why that 75 percent agreement rate, that relief rate, is really remarkable.”
Olson was recently named among many top innovators in the tax and accounting industry as one of Accounting Today’s Top 100 Most Influential People of 2012. Her lecture at UF Law was part of the Graduate Tax Program Enrichment Series.