You have a month before taxes are due, and if you need help either filing or fighting with the IRS, both can be done for free — if you know where to go.
While the IRS website at www.IRS.gov is full of good information, getting the IRS on the phone is still difficult.
IRS Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson said in her latest report that the federal agency receives more than 100 million phone calls annually, but many don’t get through. Last year, 53 percent of calls to the IRS were answered, an improvement over the 38 percent the year before but still not great. Of the calls that did get through, the average wait time last year was 18 minutes.
At the same time, IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers, like the one in downtown Fort Worth, no longer help taxpayers with filing taxes and are accessible only through appointments. And both the assistance centers and the IRS toll-free number closes the day after the filing deadline, which is April 18 this year.
But there are places to get help if you get a letter from the IRS citing a problem with your taxes. (Remember the IRS will not call or email you before sending out a letter — but a fraudster will.)
Millions of taxpayers receive letters from the IRS each year regarding mistakes including math errors (almost 2 million) and document matching problems (3.8 million). In addition, there were 916,000 audit exams done in 2015, according to Olson’s report.
The IRS’ Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) takes on individual cases when the taxpayer is having trouble working with the IRS on any issue. For example, the TAS office in Dallas can speed up the process if the taxpayer is having a financial hardship. Or TAS can take a case if the taxpayer feels he or she has come to a dead end in discussions with the IRS.
In 2016, TAS answered 38,000 calls and took on 28,000 cases, according to Olson. The remaining 10,000 calls were provided with assistance without creating a case.
There is no income limit for this free service. Much of the work can be done over the phone and through email.
Another avenue for taxpayers is the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC). Fort Worth has two clinics at Legal Aid of Northwest Texas and the Texas A&M University School of Law.
These clinics offer the same help in resolving an issue with the IRS, but clients are limited to income that is 250 percent of the poverty level ($30,150 for a single taxpayer; $61,500 for a family of four).
In 2015, LITCs represented 18,751 taxpayers in disputes with the IRS and provided consultation or advice to an additional 18,810 taxpayers, according to the IRS. LITCs helped taxpayers secure more than $4.3 million in tax refunds and eliminate more than $64 million in tax liabilities, penalties and interest.
The clinic at Legal Aid has offices in Fort Worth and Dallas and handles around 150 cases a year, said Joni Balamut, who handles the cases for the Fort Worth office.
“We do a lot of cases where there is wage garnishing or bank levies that are causing a hardship,” she said. “We help them get that released and come up with an alternative arrangement, either an installment agreement that is more affordable or an offer in compromise or showing the IRS that the debt is currently not collectible. It’s all based on their finances.”
Balamut suggests that taxpayers who receive a letter from the IRS stating a problem should try working with the agency first.
“I’ve had people come in with the envelope not even open,” she said. “The IRS will work for you. It’s just a matter of reading the notice and calling.”
But remember there are a couple of places to go if you run into problems with the IRS.
▪ The Taxpayer Advocate Service is for taxpayers who have unresolved issues with the IRS. TAS has offices in all 50 states, including one at 1114 Commerce St., Dallas, 214-413-6500. TAS website is www.TaxpayerAdvocate.irs.gov or 877–777–4778. No income requirements.
▪ Low Income Taxpayer Clinics in Fort Worth at Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, 817-336-3943; and Texas A&M University School of Law, 817-212-4062. For incomes up to 250 percent of poverty guidelines to resolve IRS issues. Appointments recommended. Spanish and other languages available.
▪ The IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center at 819 Taylor St., Room 6A14, Fort Worth. IRS employees can accept payments or help resolve tax issues, including establishing payment agreements for those who are having difficulty paying their taxes. Appointments only, call 844-545-5640.
AARP Tax Aid Program: AARP has numerous local sites in public libraries and senior centers where trained and certified volunteers provide tax preparation and electronic filing help for anyone, regardless of age or income. Call 211 to find a location or go online at www.aarp.org and search for the Tax-Aide Site Locator. Appointments recommended; walk-ins welcome.
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Centers: VITA sites are for those with income of $54,000 or less. All volunteers are trained and certified by the IRS. Drop-off sites at many locations allow filers to drop off information and come back to sign the return. No appointments necessary. Call 211 or go to www.mymoneydfw.com.
Free File: The IRS free tax software programs for incomes below $64,000. Go to www.IRS.gov to access the program.
Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays.