Newsreal: New and improved IRS: Fast, fair and fun!

San Francisco writer Tom McNichol satirizes the IRS, calling audits little more than 'getting to know you' sessions.

Published October 30, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

dear Taxpayer,

Enclosed is your 1997 Tax Information Packet. As Acting Commissioner of the IRS, thank you for making this nation's tax system the most effective system of voluntary compliance in the world. As you may be aware, this has been a difficult year for Internal Revenue. Congressional hearings have exposed serious abuses involving a very small number of well-meaning but misguided tax compliance agents. Please accept our sincere apologies. A bill recently passed by the House Ways and Means Committee has called for sweeping changes in the way the IRS conducts business. In the meantime, we'll be doing everything we can to make paying your federal income tax fast, fair and -- dare I say -- fun. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions, highlighting the many ways we're putting the "service" back into the Internal Revenue Service:

I'm about to be audited by the IRS. What should I do?

We pride ourselves on treating every taxpayer the same, whether he's the wealthy personal friend of a high-ranking IRS employee or a struggling small business owner unable to afford years of costly tax litigation. (To self-monitor our compliance, IRS agents may ask you detailed questions about your willingness to litigate.) Many so-called audits are little more than "getting to know you" sessions, a way for IRS agents to meet the people behind all of those impersonal numbers we see every year. Our goal at the IRS is to protect your rights -- that's precisely why we publish (at last count) 480 tax forms and 17,000 pages of IRS laws, comprising more than 5.5 million words of income tax rules and regulations. So relax.

What are my rights regarding a visit from an IRS agent?

Tough new regulations greatly expand taxpayers' legal and privacy rights. Effective immediately, IRS compliance agents cannot enter your home without knocking. In some cases, agents may be liable for any damage done to your door. Electronic surveillance of your home or workplace by IRS agents has been sharply curtailed, provided your total non-farm income (including railroad retirement benefits) does not exceed $7,775. IRS agents are also bound by some, but not all, rules of the Geneva Convention regarding unlawful imprisonment and torture.

How long will it take to get my refund?

Generally, about 10-12 weeks after we receive your return, provided your refund is less than $50. Taxpayers with refunds in excess of $50 should consult the "Century at a Glance" calendar on Page 17 of the instruction booklet to calculate the approximate arrival date of their refund. If for any reason you believe your refund has been delayed, please request Publication 5806, "Things to Do While You're Waiting for Your Refund."

If I file electronically, will I get my refund sooner?

In many cases, yes. We've made electronic filing even easier this year with TaxMan, our new Tax Compliance Software. Simply load TaxMan onto your computer's hard drive and the program automatically retrieves all your financial records from public and private sources, including W-2 forms, bank and credit card statements, mortgage and alimony payments, medical and court records, office football pool tout sheets, personal letters and diaries. TaxMan will compute your tax and automatically deduct the amount from your checking account, or set up a convenient schedule of payments. In the unlikely event that all of your assets are seized, TaxMan will even provide information about homeless shelters in your area.

I use a portion of my home for business purposes. Am I entitled to a deduction?

Perhaps. In response to taxpayers' requests, the regulations regarding business use of a home have been streamlined. Beginning this year, it is no longer necessary to submit a clay model of your house to the IRS. In most cases, ordinary architectural blueprints will be accepted, provided they clearly depict the business and non-business areas of your home.

Can I get the earned income credit?


Why not?

See Publication 2210, "Why You Can't Get the Earned Income Credit."

My spouse died during the current tax year. Do I have to file a return?

If a taxpayer died before filing a return for 1998, a spouse or personal representative may have to file a return for that taxpayer. However, it is no longer necessary to place a pen in the decedent's hand and drag it across the page to have him sign the return.

Can I get tax advice over the phone?

Yes. Our expanded Tele-Tax service makes it easier than ever to call the IRS with your tax question. Simply call the toll-free number for your area (See Worksheet D on Page 35, "How To Calculate the Toll-Free Number For Your Area"), to be connected to an IRS representative. Due to the large volume of calls, one-on-one tax advice is impossible. However, you will be connected to a group "chat line" with thousands of other taxpayers, many of whom have tax questions similar to yours. Be sure to talk loudly.

As Acting Commissioner, let me assure you that everyone at the IRS is working day and night, between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays, to make the agency more responsive to the people we serve. If you have any complaints concerning our performance, please contact us, NOT your member of Congress. They're already busy enough.

We'll make sure your complaint is disposed of promptly.

By Tom Mcnichol

Tom McNichol is a San Francisco writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and on public radio's "Marketplace" and "All Things Considered." He is a contributing editor for Wired magazine.

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