Julie Jason: A pathway through a complex tax system

Have you ever gotten a letter from the IRS? Did you wish you had a roadmap telling you where to go and who to call?

Having just returned from a vacation, I’ve been using a car navigation system to get around instead of a paper map. Another roadmap, one far more complex and intricate than any map of Nantucket, is the newly published “Taxpayer Roadmap 2019,” just released by the national taxpayer advocate, Nina Olson.

It’s the work of the Taxpayer Advocate Service, which Olson heads up. TAS is an independent organization within the IRS that helps taxpayers and protects taxpayer rights.

I’m familiar with TAS since, a few years ago, I was appointed to serve as the state of Connecticut’s representative to the Taxpayer Advocacy Panel. TAP is a federal advisory committee to the IRS. TAP’s mission is ultimately to help improve the IRS by adding the perspective of the taxpayer to the workings of the IRS. It also serves as a focus forum for Olson in her role as advocate. Serving on TAP for three years was a worthwhile and eye-opening experience for me, and I support the work of the advocate wholeheartedly.

The map, which looks like a subway map, depicts “a taxpayer’s journey” through the modern U.S. tax system, “from getting answers to tax law questions through audits, appeals, collection and litigation.”

TAS’ purpose in releasing the roadmap is to help not only taxpayers, but also policymakers. It shows “why the road to tax compliance isn’t always easy to navigate.”

If you are a taxpayer, you have to take a look at it. It shows just how arduous a taxpayer’s journey can be. Someday, if not already, you will likely need to know how to travel the road to a good taxpayer outcome.

The map is actually a series of seven color-coded lines that connect the different stages. This helps the taxpayer, but also illustrates “the complexity of tax administration, with its many connections, overlaps, and repetitions between stages.”

The seven stages are:

1. Tax return preparation.

2. Tax return processing.

3. Collection.

4. Exam.

5. Appeals.

6. Litigation.

7. Private debt collection.

To see the map online or view a video introduction to the “subway map,” go to taxpayeradvocate.irs.gov/roadmap. You can order a printed copy by calling 800-829-3676 and requesting Publication 5341.

“Anyone looking at this map will understand that we have an incredibly complex tax system that is almost impossible for the average taxpayer to navigate,” Olson said.

Olson personally spent dozens of hours designing and preparing the map, along with members of her staff.

A digital interactive version is in the works. When complete, you will be able to enter the map “at any step and learn more about that step and the surrounding steps.”

If you receive an IRS letter or notice, you will also be able to enter an identification number from the notice to generate relevant information for you (in a pop-up window), including where you are in the process and your next steps.

“This digital roadmap will be the culmination of many years of work and research by TAS into human cognition and learning, notice clarity and taxpayer empowerment,” Olson said. “It is my firm belief that taxpayers must have knowledge about their rights within a bureaucracy as complex as the IRS. If only taxpayers who are represented by tax professionals have access to that knowledge, then we do not have a fair and just tax system. Thus, the digital roadmap will be a powerful tool to improve access to justice.”

TAS also provides taxpayers free consulting services for assistance in resolving an IRS problem. You can call TAS toll-free at 877-777-4778, or check out TAS at facebook.com/YourVoiceAtIRS/, twitter.com/YourVoiceatIRS and youtube.com/user/TASNTA.

After 18 years serving as taxpayer advocate, Olson will be retiring on July 31. If you are interested in her recommendations to Congress, read her final report by visiting https://taxpayeradvocate.irs.gov/2020ObjectivesReport.

Julie Jason, JD, LLM, a personal money manager (Jackson, Grant of Stamford) and author, welcomes your questions/comments (readers@juliejason.com). Her awards include the 2018 Clarion Award, symbolizing excellence in clear, concise communications. Her latest book, a curated collection of Julie’s columns, is “Retire Securely: Insights on Money Management From an Award-Winning Financial Columnist.” To hear Julie speak, visit juliejason.com/events.