Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Tax Man Has a Heart

Throwing off its bully image for the 2009 U.S. tax season, the Internal Revenue Service is vowing to be sensitive and do what it can to help financially strapped Americans.

"We're announcing a number of concrete steps that the IRS is taking to work with taxpayers if they find themselves in difficult economic situations because of the current economy," Doug Shulman, a commissioner for the federal tax office, said in a conference call with reporters.

As Americans "go through their annual ritual of citizenship," as Shulman put it, IRS agents have been instructed to be sensitive, especially to previously compliant taxpayers who are for the first time unable to pay.

"We recognize the economic realities that are out there," Shulman said. "We're available to work with people."

The agents can suspend collection actions, reduce monthly payments, allow a skipped payment and take other actions to help those in need avoid default. And those who believe they cannot pay their 2008 taxes or worry they will miss a payment on back taxes can contact the agency to avoid penalties. "The most important thing for people to do is to get on the phone or walk into an IRS office," he said. The worst thing someone can do is go dark and not be in a discussion with us."

Just last month, the agency announced a program making it easier for homeowners with an IRS lien on their property to refinance their mortgages or sell their homes.

However, Shulman cautioned that those seeking help will have to demonstrate their inability to pay. Those who fail to file tax returns, or who simply ignore collection notices, will not be eligible for help, he said.

At the same time, the agency is trying to get more cash back to taxpayers by promoting deductions and credits.

The Recovery Rebate Credit will allow some to collect on any portion of the maximum amount of last year's Economic Stimulus Payment that they did not receive. Based on the 2008 return, citizens who have had a child, experienced a drop in income or are no longer claimed as a dependent are among those eligible for the credit.

With the filing season for 2008 tax returns opening this week, the IRS expects to process 250 million returns over the next few months, including 130 million from individuals. The IRS has also expanded its free electronic filing program to include those with income exceeding $56,000.

"The vast majority of Americans, we're hoping, are able to actually pay their taxes on time in the full amount," Shulman said. "I don't anticipate that these specific measures will show any appreciable drop in revenue to the government."

Sources: Reuters, Associated Press

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