A Dubious Privilege

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement argues that we live in a divided nation. First there’s a gilded “1%” enjoying lives of ease and privilege. Then there’s a downtrodden “99%” struggling just to stay in place. But here’s a take on “the 1%” that you won’t hear at your local tent city . . .

The IRS is struggling just like the rest of us to carry out its mission with limited resources. Back in 2003, they audited just one out of every 203 returns. By 2010, that number was up to one out of 90. To stretch that audit budget even further, they’re auditing more and more taxpayers by mail. But one study shows that 10% of IRS mail never gets where it’s supposed to go, and 27% of those who do get their mail don’t even realize they’re actually being audited! Naturally, that leads to more and more of the paperwork screwups that every taxpayer fears.

Enter Nina Olson. She’s the IRS’s first and only Taxpayer Advocate, a position created by the 1998 “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” act. She supervises the Taxpayer Advocate Service, a nationwide group of 2,000 caseworkers who specialize in cutting through red tape and greasing the wheels of the great gummy IRS machine. If the IRS sends your mail to the wrong address, slaps you with a lien after you’ve already paid your bill, or just makes a mistake they can’t seem to fix, Olson’s office is the one we’ll call.

Last month, Olson delivered a presentation to the Federal Bar Association on how “the 99%” experience the tax system. And the picture she painted makes a tent in lower Manhattan Park look like a room at the Ritz. One in three taxpayers who call the Service don’t get an answer. Only half of those who write hear back within six weeks. The IRS is relying on computers instead of people to audit all but the highest-income taxpayers. And perhaps most curious of all, she says, “we’re getting to a situation where the only people who get face-to-face audits are the 1%”!

Now, correct us if we’re wrong, but do you really consider face time with an IRS auditor a “privilege”? We all know that at least some level of government is necessary. But there are just some parts you don’t want to see up close and in person. Like the “Level 4″ Biolab at the Atlanta Centers for Disease Control, for example, where we store the Ebola virus, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, and other superbugs we can’t risk having out on the loose. Or the “Supermax” penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, where we “store” the most dangerous felons we can’t risk having out on the loose. Or the inside of any IRS Service Center!

Does Olson’s “1%” comment conjure up images of plush IRS offices, with thick oriental carpets and rich leather upholstery, staffed by discreet, white-gloved concierges sitting at granite-topped desks? We can assure you that when it comes to getting audited, even the 1% have to settle for the same government-issue linoleum floors, metal chairs, and battleship gray desks as everyone else. (And really, in the unlikely event you are audited, we probably won’t let you go with us anyway! Trust us — it’s for your own protection.)

We talk in these emails about how proactive planning cuts your tax bill. But paying less tax isn’t the only perk of a good tax plan. Did you know that smart tax planning can also cut your audit risk? In fact, some strategies — like choosing certain business entities — can cut that risk by as much as 90%. So call us if you think face time with an auditor is a “privilege” you can do without!

 

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