IR-2021-139, June 30, 2021
WASHINGTON — National Taxpayer Advocate Erin M. Collins today released her statutorily mandated midyear report to Congress. The report presents an assessment of the 2021 filing season, identifies key objectives the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) will pursue during the upcoming fiscal year, and contains the IRS's responses to each of the 73 administrative recommendations the Advocate made in her 2020 Annual Report to Congress.
The Advocate's report emphasizes that the difficulties the IRS faced in performing its traditional work due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the added responsibilities it was assigned to make three rounds of stimulus payments combined to create significant challenges for taxpayers.
"This past year and the 2021 filing season conjure up every possible cliché for taxpayers, tax professionals, the IRS, and its employees," Collins wrote. "It was a perfect storm; it was the best of times and the worst of times; patience is a virtue; with experience comes wisdom and with wisdom comes experience; out of the ashes we rise; and we experienced historical highs and lows."
During the 2021 tax filing season, the IRS processed 136 million individual income tax returns and issued 96 million refunds totaling about $270 billion. That matches up closely to the results of the last typical filing season in 2019. In addition to its traditional work, the IRS was directed by Congress to issue three rounds of stimulus payments over the past 15 months and has made about 475 million payments worth $807 billion to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on U.S. families and businesses.
"The IRS and its employees deserve tremendous credit for what they have accomplished under very difficult circumstances," Collins wrote, "but there is always room for improvement."
Although most taxpayers successfully filed their returns and received their refunds, a historically high number did not. At the conclusion of the filing season, the IRS faced a backlog of over 35 million individual and business income tax returns that require manual processing – meaning that employee involvement is generally needed before a return can advance to the next stage in the processing pipeline. The backlog includes about 16.8 million paper tax returns waiting to be processed; about 15.8 million returns suspended during processing that require further review; and about 2.7 million amended returns awaiting processing. The backlog resulted largely from the pandemic-related evacuation order that restricted employee access to IRS facilities.
Processing backlogs matter greatly, the report says, because most taxpayers overpay their tax through wage withholding or estimated tax payments and are entitled to receive refunds when they file their returns. The government also uses the tax system to distribute financial benefits. So far for tax year 2020, in addition to refunding overpayments of tax, the IRS has issued about 20 million refunds that include Earned Income Tax Credits worth up to $6,660 and about 15 million refunds that include Additional Child Tax Credits worth up to $1,400 per qualifying child. This year, over eight million taxpayers also may be eligible to receive Recovery Rebate Credits.
"For taxpayers who can afford to wait, the best advice is to be patient and give the IRS time to work through its processing backlog," Collins wrote. "But particularly for low-income taxpayers and small businesses operating on the margin, refund delays can impose significant financial hardships."
When a taxpayer needs general information or is responding to an audit or collection notice, the IRS's toll-free lines are often the taxpayer's first or second option. During the 2021 filing season, the IRS received 167 million telephone calls – over four times as many calls as during the 2019 filing season. IRS employees could not keep pace with this massive volume of calls, resulting in the poorest service ever.
The IRS reported a "Level of Service" on its Accounts Management telephone lines of 15 percent, with only seven percent of taxpayer calls reaching a telephone assistor. On the "1040" line, the most frequently called IRS toll-free number, taxpayers placed about 85 million calls, and only three percent (i.e., three out of 100) reached a telephone assistor.
"When so few callers can get through to a telephone assistor, problems remain unsolved and taxpayer frustration mounts," Collins wrote.
Over the long run, the report says the lessons learned from the pandemic can be useful in helping to identify or reprioritize needs for improved tax administration and taxpayer service.
Collins wrote: "The pandemic exposed weaknesses and vulnerabilities that must be strengthened; it forced the IRS to experiment with new approaches to old problems; it led to a renewed awareness of the impact of cuts to the IRS's budget over the past decade and the IRS's need for additional funding; and it is causing the IRS and congressional overseers to collaborate on steps to improve the IRS's performance going forward to provide taxpayers with the service they deserve."
The report recommends the IRS take these proactive steps to improve service and communication with taxpayers:
The National Taxpayer Advocate is required by statute to submit a year-end report to Congress that, among other things, makes administrative recommendations to resolve taxpayer problems. Section 7803(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code authorizes the National Taxpayer Advocate to submit administrative recommendations to the Commissioner and requires the IRS to respond within three months. Under this authority, the National Taxpayer Advocate annually transmits to the Commissioner all administrative recommendations proposed in her year-end report for response.
The National Taxpayer Advocate made 73 administrative recommendations in her 2020 year-end report and then submitted them to the Commissioner for response. The IRS has agreed to implement 48 (or 66 percent) of the recommendations in full or in part.
The IRS's responses are published in an appendix to the report.
The National Taxpayer Advocate is required by statute to submit two annual reports to the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Committee on Finance. The statute requires these reports to be submitted directly to the Committees without any prior review or comment from the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, the Secretary of the Treasury, the IRS Oversight Board, any other officer or employee of the Department of the Treasury, or the Office of Management and Budget. The first report must identify the objectives of the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate for the fiscal year beginning in that calendar year. The second report must include a discussion of the ten most serious problems encountered by taxpayers, identify the ten tax issues most frequently litigated in the courts, and make administrative and legislative recommendations to resolve taxpayer problems.
The Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) is an independent organization within the IRS that helps taxpayers and protects taxpayer rights. Your local taxpayer advocate's number is in your local directory and and on the Contact Us webpage. You can also call TAS toll-free at 877-777-4778. TAS can help if you need assistance in resolving an IRS problem, if your problem is causing financial difficulty, or if you believe an IRS system or procedure isn't working as it should. Our service is free. For more information about TAS and your rights under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, go to Taxpayer Advocate Service. You can get updates on tax topics at facebook.com/YourVoiceAtIRS, Twitter.com/YourVoiceatIRS, and YouTube.com/TASNTA.