"How can they do this to us? How can they take our refund before they've proven their case?" a woman writes about the collection practices of the Internal Revenue Service.
"My husband was not an owner of that company. He didn't even have profit-sharing. How can they possibly think it would have benefited him not to pay the company's withholding taxes? It's insane."The woman's husband was a low-level officer of a now-defunct Mississippi company. The IRS held him responsible for payroll taxes the company had not paid.
The couple's plight and numerous other IRS taxpayer abuse stories, including the following, recently rolled through the halls of Congress:
- The IRS destroyed a woman's credit rating by placing a lien on her Pennsylvania farm because it believed her boyfriend stashed money in her bank account.
- The IRS hit a Montana woman with a $500 penalty because she wrote on her tax return, "signed involuntarily under penalty of statutory punishment."
From stories like these was born the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
Congress says the law clarifies and strengthens existing rights of taxpayers, assures they will be informed of their rights and gives them relief from some abusive IRS action. Here are some major sections of the new law:
- A taxpayer won't owe additional taxes and penalties if he relies on a written, though erroneous, IRS answer to his question. He must be able to prove he gave the IRS correct and adequate information.
- The IRS is not allowed to judge agent performance by collection results. Although the agency claims quotas were against its policy, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights gives such policy the force of law.
- The IRS must tell taxpayers contacted for audit or tax collection of their rights and obligations in clear, nontechnical language and must explain why penalties are being imposed.
- An interview by an IRS agent must be suspended when a taxpayer wants to consult an attorney, CPA or other qualified person. A taxpayer isn't required to attend the interview unless the IRS issues a formal summons.
- A taxpayer who wins his case and shows the IRS's position was not justified may get back some expenses after he appeals the agent's decision to higher IRS authority. Before, a taxpayer could only recover some of the costs of going to court after appeals within the IRS failed.
- The IRS cannot require immediate payment of taxes after accepting an installment payment plan except when the taxpayer lies, a payment is late, collection is in jeopardy or the taxpayer's financial condition changes.
- The IRS may not garnish bank accounts or wages or seize assets without 30 days' notice. The notice period had been 10 days.
Congress' concern about the power of the IRS and its efforts to curb such power are refreshing, and a few of the new laws will help. But as readers will see in later columns the Taxpayer Bill of Rights would be more effective if the legislators had taken a stronger stand.