The National Taxpayer Advocate’s annual report designates the complexity of the tax code as the #1 most serious problem facing taxpayers and recommends that Congress take significant steps to simplify it. “The existing tax code makes compliance difficult, requiring taxpayers to devote excessive time to preparing and filing their returns,” Olson wrote. “It obscures comprehension, leaving many taxpayers unaware how their taxes are computed and what rate of tax they pay; it facilitates tax avoidance by enabling sophisticated taxpayers to reduce their tax liabilities and provides criminals with opportunities to commit tax fraud; and it undermines trust in the system by creating an impression that many taxpayers are not compliant, thereby reducing the incentives that honest taxpayers feel to comply.”
TAX-RELATED IDENTITY THEFT
The number of tax-related identity theft incidents has increased substantially in recent years. Within TAS, identity theft case receipts increased by more than 650 percent from FY 2008 to FY 2012. At the end of FY 2012, the IRS had almost 650,000 identity-theft cases in its inventory servicewide. The problem has grown worse as organized criminal actors have found ways to steal the Social Security numbers (SSNs) of taxpayers, file tax returns using those taxpayers’ names and SSNs, and obtain fraudulent tax refunds. Then, when the real taxpayer files a return claiming the refund, that return is rejected. The impact on victims is significant. More than 75 percent of taxpayers filing returns are due refunds, which average some $3,000 and are not paid until the IRS fully resolves a case.
OTHER KEY ISSUES ADDRESSED
Federal law requires the Advocate’s Annual Report to Congress to identify at least 20 of the “most serious problems” encountered by taxpayers and make administrative and legislative recommendations to mitigate those problems. Among the “most serious problems" addressed are the following:
- The IRS’s Offshore Voluntary Disclosure programs and their failure to distinguish adequately between “bad actors” and “benign actors.” The IRS has sought to increase enforcement of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) reporting requirements in recent years and has offered a series of voluntary disclosure programs designed to settle with taxpayers who had failed to file required FBAR forms. However, the report says, the programs generally applied a “one-size-fits-all” approach that required the payment of significant penalties and did not distinguish between “bad actors” and “benign actors.” By generally requiring taxpayers who make voluntary disclosures to “opt out” of the disclosure program and submit to comprehensive audits in order to avoid draconian penalties, the report argues that the program has caused excessive burden and fear for taxpayers who had reasonable cause for not filing FBAR forms or whose failure to file was inadvertent.
- The IRS’s failure to provide tax refunds to victims of preparer fraud. When a taxpayer is victimized by a preparer who receives a fraudulent refund by paper check, the IRS will issue a replacement refund to the taxpayer. However, the IRS will not issue a replacement refund when a taxpayer is victimized by a preparer who receives the fraudulent refund by altering the bank routing number on a direct-deposit request, even though the IRS has received legal advice that it may do so. Olson says the taxpayer-victim is legally entitled to receive the refund, and the IRS has no legal basis for withholding it.
- The IRS’s extraordinarily high audit rate of taxpayers who claim the adoption tax credit. Congress created the adoption tax credit to help low and middle income families afford the costs of an adoption, which are estimated to run as high as $40,000. Yet the IRS, partly using income-based rules, selected 69 percent of tax returns claiming the credit during the 2012 filing season for audit, compared with one percent of returns overall. These audits imposed significant burden on the affected taxpayers for several reasons, most notably because the median refund claim constituted nearly one-quarter of the taxpayers’ adjusted gross income for the year, and the audits on average took over four months. Despite the burden, the payoff was relatively small. The IRS denied only about 10 percent of the amounts claimed in tax year 2010, and as of mid-November had denied only about 1.5 percent of the amounts claimed in tax year 2011. The excessive focus on returns claiming the adoption credit burdened many taxpayers and could have the effect of negating Congress’s intent to encourage adoptions, the report says.
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