The Internal Revenue Service telephone help lines are open around the clock for taxpayers who need answers to
difficult tax questions. Trouble is, even the IRS is wrong 15
percent of the time.
IRS officials say they're trying to close that gap, but it isn't
"People should be able to rely on the information they get from
us," said Marilyn Soulsburg, acting IRS commissioner for customer
service. But for sticky problems, she added, "oftentimes the
taxpayers' best bet is to seek professional advice."
A little more than half of American taxpayers had their returns
professionally prepared last year, according to the IRS. Others are
increasingly turning to computer tax software programs, which are
modified each year to reflect changes in the tax code and "ask"
people detailed questions about their finances.
The IRS estimates that only 1 percent of returns done
electronically contain errors, compared with 20 percent of those
prepared on paper.
But millions of Americans still do their taxes with nothing more
than a pencil, a calculator and a pot of coffee. If they get
stumped, the IRS offers a variety of toll-free telephone lines to
The IRS employs about 7,000 people in its toll-free telephone
program, which expanded its 15,000 lines for the first time this
year to seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Last year, almost 70
million callers phoned the IRS for tax advice or to inquire about
Dave Medick, national director of the IRS telephone service,
said the agency's monitoring of calls indicates that last year's
answers were accurate 85 percent of the time regarding tax law. For
questions about individual taxpayer accounts, the accuracy rate was
As recently as 1995, the accuracy rate for both types of
questions was placed at about 90 percent, but IRS recently switched
to a centralized call monitoring system to replace the spot test
calls made in the past.
"We are always working to improve," Medick said. "We have
instant replay, so to speak, in the areas where we have the most
That "replay" includes bulletins sent to the 25 IRS phone
service locations detailing areas of tax law where errors are more
frequent. The IRS also has redoubled its training, but the
expansion to a 24-hour system without additional staff has put a
strain on the quality of its advice.
"We have the same group of people working more hours, so we
don't have the same skill base," Soulsburg said.
But the IRS isn't too sympathetic toward people who claim they
made a mistake because of bad advice.
"For the most part, the responsibility still lies with the
taxpayer to file an accurate return," Soulsburg said. "That's why
there's a bigger burden on us to make sure our quality is as high
as it can be."
Still, although the taxpayer is ultimately responsible for all
taxes, the IRS will forgive penalties if the problem is caused by
the agency's advice. Taxpayers who believe they were given bad
guidance should contact the IRS to have any penalty deleted. It's a
good idea for the questioner to record the name of the person
providing the advice and the time and date of the call.
Another problem IRS has been working to overcome is the number
of times taxpayers simply can't get through at all. A recent
General Accounting Office report found that only about 51 percent
of all calls were answered in 1997, and that was up 20 percent from
the year before.
Last year, the agency expanded from typical business hours to 16
hours a day, seven days a week, and this year calls are answered
round-the-clock all week during tax-filing season, from the
beginning of January through mid-April.
"We've given people more opportunities to get through at
different times," Soulsburg said.
Another free option for taxpayers with computers is the IRS site
on the Internet www.irs.ustreas.gov that includes thousands of
pages of tax publications and forms. The site, visited more than
340 million times in fiscal 1998, provides answers to frequently
asked questions and features alerts to any widespread tax problems.
There are other alternatives. IRS tax help, including
face-to-face contact, is available at 400 agency offices around the
country, with 250 open Monday through Saturday through April 10.
Taxpayers should call the IRS for more information.