Unless we’re expecting a big refund check in the mail, I think our hearts sink just a little bit when a letter arrives from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Of all the federal agencies, we dread communicating with the IRS the most. And frankly, it’s also probably the agency that we need to communicate with most often, so it’s a wise investment of our time to consider the various avenues of communication available to us and the best ways to use them.
The popular press has covered IRS phone call wait times and its high percentage of dropped calls over the last few years. In fact, last year during tax season, the IRS reportedly dropped 8 million calls. Worse yet, of those that weren’t dropped, only 40% got through to a person, and many were on hold for longer than 30 minutes, according to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
Now that you know what you’re up against, here’s how to navigate the IRS’ phone and online resources for maximum efficacy.
When Calling the IRS…
Be mindful of when you call. The lesson here is to avoid calling during tax filing season. You’re essentially doomed. And honestly, you shouldn’t wait until the last minute to get tax advice anyway.
The key is to do good planning throughout the year. Questions will arise as you plan to maximize your deductions, and if you’re doing this early, you’ll more easily find IRS agents available to field your questions. So, instead of waiting until the last minute, call before that last minute. That could be today, or it could be when the latest forms and publications are available.
In fact, the IRS has a specific number for small business owners with tax questions that relate to their business: 1-800-829-4933. Put this number in your contacts.
When Navigating the IRS Website…
You can also let your fingers do the walking, so to speak. The IRS is directing as many taxpayers as possible to its website to find answers to their questions, or provide simple services. Here are some of the most commonly used.
Forms and Publications
If you need to download a form or publication, use the search feature on this page at the IRS website. When searching, be sure to note the tax year of the publication you’re downloading. For example, even though we’re entering the 2016 calendar year, you want forms and publications for tax year 2015—which is what you’re filing by April 15, 2016.
Get Your IRS Transcript
While the IRS won’t let you download a copy of your transcript, they will send it to you by mail. A transcript can be useful—and might be required—for verifying your income as part of a loan application.
Check Your Refund
If it’s been 21 days or more since you filed electronically, or more than six weeks after filing a paper return, you can go to this IRS page to check the status of your refund.
Interactive Tax Assistant
While the term “interactive” may be debatable, the IRS offers an online service that answers questions based on your responses about a series of popular tax topics.
When You Need to Meet Face-to-Face…
You can always ask an IRS agent, in person, questions you may have about your filing circumstances. For example, many small business owners include their business income on their personal income tax forms, which leads to a lot of questions.
For a more personal touch, the IRS has agents stationed at Taxpayer Assistance Centers who will handle personal income tax issues. There are offices in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and you can find out if there is one near you through a zip code search.
When the IRS Looks for You…
Finally, let’s take a moment to look at the other side of IRS communication, which is when they reach out to you. They may reach out to you for any number of reasons, not all of which are bad. Nonetheless, here are some important tips.
Contact Your Accountant
If you work with an accountant who handles your taxes, send a copy of the IRS letter to that person. As your accountant, he or she will be better able to prepare and advise you in the event of an audit. If he or she uses financial management software, such as QuickBooks, then you can easily draw up documentation to support your case.
One of the worst things you can do is set the letter aside and tell yourself, “I’ll deal with it later.” Doing this could run a very costly clock on things like interest accruing on fines or unpaid balances. Wouldn’t you rather get that taken care of sooner than later?
Do a Scam Check
There are many scammers out there imitating the IRS. Your accountant should be able to tell immediately if it’s a scam. If you rely on your own analysis, go over the letter carefully. Note that the IRS will never send you to a website that ends in “.com,” “.net,” or “.org.” Also, it’s a scam if the letter asks you to call by phone or respond to an office that’s not listed as an official IRS office on its website.
Finally, and this is incredibly important, the IRS won’t make threats or direct you to make a wire payment to a foreign address.
Look up the letter on the IRS website. Virtually all the letters the IRS might send you are form letters and they have an identifying number. Search that number or a keyword on the IRS website. If you get what you suspect is a fraudulent email purporting to be from the IRS, you can report it.
If the IRS Makes You Anxious…
The best way to calm your nerves when you’re forced to deal with the IRS is to understand the situation. With these tips, tools and tactics, you should be able to rest a little easier when you need to start talking to the tax man.
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