“All we can do is try to maximize our services as well as we can; as well as we can is still going to be miserable. You really do get what you pay for.”
That was the word from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner John Koskinen last year as he described the challenges the agency faced for the 2015 filing season due to increased compliance burdens and budget cuts. According to the most recent report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), that’s exactly what we got. Will it get better in 2016? Here are some highlights from the TIGTA report along with a few predictions:
2015 Tax Season: According to TIGTA, as of May 8, 2015, the IRS received more than 137.3 million tax returns. Over 87% of those returns were electronically filed. That signals a slight uptick (.78%) from 2014.
Prediction: With the applicability of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), there will more incentives – not fewer – to file in 2016. Expect numbers to hold steady or increase.
2015 Tax Season: TIGTA noted that “[p]rior to the start of this filing season, the IRS was challenged by the late enactment of tax provisions that were set to expire.” In fact, Congress waited until December 16, 2014 – just two weeks before the end of the calendar year – to approve a number of tax provisions that had expired in December 2013. Those provisions were made retroactive to January 1, 2014, but the delay meant that IRS had to scramble to update systems to begin accepting and processing individual tax returns on January 20, 2015.
Prediction: With about 100 days left in 2015, many of those same tax extenders provisions are outstanding yet again. Two weeks ago, over 2,000 businesses sent a letter to members of Congress asking them to “act immediately” to either extend or make permanent those tax provisions. Still no movement. If Congress continues to drag its feet, expect to see those same challenges again. Specifically, TIGTA noted that, prior to tax season, “the IRS must identify the tax law and administrative changes affecting the upcoming filing season.” Once that happens, IRS must work to revise tax forms, instructions, and publications, as well as reprogram computer systems. Those resets (especially the reprogramming and testing) tend to happen in October. The longer that Congress pushes off addressing tax extenders, the chances of a delayed tax season increase. Additionally, two primary provisions of ACA, the Shared Responsibility Payment, and the Premium Tax Credit (PTC) will again be in play in 2016.
2015 Tax Season: During tax season, approximately 83.2 million taxpayers contacted the IRS by calling Customer Account Services toll-free telephone assistance lines. While some of those calls were properly routed to automated answering systems, only about 8.3 million calls were actually answered in person. The result? A dismal 37.6% level of service (compared with more than 70% last year). The average time for those 8.3 million calls to be answered? A whopping 23.5 minutes. You can check how that compares with prior years below.
Prediction: There has been no significant increase in IRS funding. Don’t expect more calls to be answered. And don’t expect wait times to decrease. Expect a push towards more online assistance and less personal contact.
2015 Tax Season: In-person assistance at Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs) also decreased. Totals reflect an approximate 4% decrease in the level of in-person assistance.
Prediction: Same as above. Since there has been no significant increase in IRS funding, don’t expect more TACs to be staffed.
2015 Tax Season: As of May 2, 2015, the IRS reported that it identified 163,087 tax returns with more than $908.3 million claimed in fraudulent refunds and prevented the issuance of approximately $787 million in fraudulent refunds. Tax fraud continued to be a problem with TIGTA warning, in 2015, that taxpayers should be on “high alert.”
Prediction: Tax refund fraud – especially tax refund fraud related to identity theft – is a priority for IRS (Phishing, phone scams and identity theft-related fraud topped their Dirty Dozen list again in 2015). The Commissioner has already warned on concerns that the fraud levels for 2016 could be high based on experiences from 2015 and concerns about the amount of taxpayer data in the hands of criminals following the IRS data breach. Expect increased filters and yes, that means it’s likely we’ll see a boost in tax refund delays.
2015 Tax Season: The number of tax returns filed by paid tax return preparers claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) without the due diligence checklist continues to decline. Additionally, TIGTA found that claims filed by preparers with the checklist have fewer processing errors (e.g., mathematical errors, invalid EITC qualifying child Social Security Number (SSN), etc.) when compared to claims filed by preparers without the required checklist.
Prediction: The IRS will continue to stress tax preparer compliance with EITC rules. Additionally, IRS is tightening up rules related to EITC to extend the checklist to self-prepared tax returns. That’s bound to cause confusion for taxpayers.
Then: Where’s My Refund? The application that allows taxpayers to check the status of their refunds was used almost 209.7 million times, a 23.8% increase over the same time last filing season.
Prediction: Expect the use of Where’s My Refund? to increase – especially if refunds are delayed.
Then: The IRS has been driving taxpayers to its website at www.irs.gov as the best source for answers to their tax questions. The IRS reported almost 327.8 million visits to IRS.gov this filing season. TIGTA did find some errors on the site, including information on two interactive tax assistance applications and 13 IRS tax topics.
Now: Expect traffic to the website to increase. I also expect IRS to update the site more frequently, directly addressing some of those concerns from TIGTA. However, due to the breach using the Where’s My Transcript? tool, some of the tools and applications might look a little different in 2016.
So what was the word overall for the 2015 tax filing season? Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, likely summed it up best, writing in July, “For the majority of taxpayers who filed their returns and did not require IRS assistance, the filing season was generally successful. For the segment of taxpayers who required help from the IRS, the filing season was by far the worst in memory.”
As we start gearing up for the 2016 tax season (you can find rates for the 2015 tax year here), I suspect very strongly that we’re going to hear a similar story.
You can view the entire TIGTA report on the 2015 tax filing season here.