Cuts to IRS mean you should start your taxes now

If you have a question for the IRS that you think can be answered over the phone, think again.

Last year, more than 100 million calls were placed to the tax-collection agency. Nearly 20 million of them went unanswered. Those who did get through were put on hold for an average of almost 18 minutes.

These are just a few of the eye-openers in the annual report that the National Taxpayer Advocate recently issued to Congress.

Nina Olson, the advocate, said that the agency’s funding was cut substantially in last year’s sequestration. In addition, the IRS has had to handle a huge increase in tax-related identity theft and refund fraud, assigning more than 3,000 employees to address those issues last year.

Given the challenges the IRS is facing, don’t procrastinate with filing your tax return if you’ve got an issue and need help.

The IRS will be answering only “basic” tax questions by phone and at its walk-in sites during this filing season. If you have a more complex issue, the agency will refer you to its website (IRS.gov) or its publications or recommend that you seek help from outside resources, such as tax software.

“At the risk of vast understatement, it is a sad state of affairs when the government writes tax laws as complex as ours — and then is unable to answer any questions beyond ‘basic’ ones from baffled citizens who are doing their best to comply,” Olson said.

That’s why if you do need help, it’s important to take advantage of the agency’s Free File program. Free File, conducted in partnership with 14 private tax-preparation companies, offers software that will assist those with low or moderate incomes — $58,000 or less — to prepare and e-file their returns. The program is for federal returns but most companies also offer state tax return preparation, some at no cost.

The participating companies providing Free File tax prep products can be found at IRS.gov/freefile. To qualify for free offers, you must access the program through the IRS website. Each company has its own eligibility requirements, which may include your age, state or military status. Once you decide which company you want to work with, you’ll be sent to that provider’s website to prepare your return.

Even if you don’t qualify for the Free File program, you can use still file your return electronically using IRS e-file. When you use e-file, the math is done for you. To e-file, you have to use tax-preparation software or file electronically through an authorized professional preparer. Nearly all tax preparers use e-file now and many are required by law to do so.

One of the top questions the IRS receives involves refunds. If you file electronically and select the option to get your money by direct deposit, you can expect your refund within three weeks. During that time, if you have a question about your refund, the IRS will direct you to its “Where’s My Refund?” tool available in English and Spanish through the IRS2Go mobile app, IRS.gov and the agency’s automated telephone service.

The IRS says its customer service representatives will research the status of your refund only if it’s been 21 days or more after your return was filed electronically. If you file a paper return through the mail, you’ll also have to use the online tool unless it’s been more than six weeks. However, if the return tool says you need to contact the IRS, then you can seek help from a customer representative.

With all the changes in customer service at the IRS, procrastinators take heed. This is a bad year to wait until the last minute.

Michelle Singletary: michelle.singletary@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

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