Income taxes are complicated, so it’s only natural people have questions about them. You might think that a good way to get your questions answered is to call the IRS on the phone. You might think that, but you’d be wrong. If you have a question about completing your income tax return, probably the last thing you should do is try to call the IRS.
More than 100 million taxpayers attempt to reach the IRS by telephone each year. However, due to budget cutbacks, the IRS has largely given up on trying to provide good phone service to the American taxpayer. Indeed, the IRS is projecting it will be able to answer only about 50% of the calls it receives from taxpayers this year—its worst performance ever. Also, the IRS will now only answer tax questions on the phone during tax season—January through April 15 of each year. After April 15, it won’t take any phone questions at all. Thus, if you have a question about an extension you’ve filed or amending a return, you’re out of luck.
If you do try calling the IRS this tax season, be prepared to wait. You’ll be on hold for at least 30 minutes. Even if you do get through, you may not be able to get an answer to your question. Last year, the IRS announced that its telephone assistors will only answer “basic” questions. More complex tax questions will not be answered.
Even if you do get an answer to your question, it may not be right. In past years, the answers IRS telephone assistors have provided have been found to be wrong as much as 39% of the time.
Also, always remember that you can’t legally rely on oral technical assistance that you receive from IRS employees. Treasury Regulation Section 601.201(k)(2) provides that “such oral advice is advisory only and the Service is not bound to recognize it in the examination of the taxpayer's return.” Thus, neither the IRS nor courts will excuse you if you underpaid your taxes or otherwise make a mistake because you got a wrong answer over the phone.
In one case, for example, taxpayers called the IRS helpline and asked whether they could withdraw funds from their IRA penalty-free to buy a home. The IRS employee said they could and they made the withdrawal. The answer was wrong, but the IRS and Tax Court made the taxpayers pay penalty taxes on the withdrawal anyway. (Clarke v. Comm’r, 68 T.C.M. 392 (1994).)
If, despite all this, you still want to call the IRS, you can find the phone number to call at www.irs.gov/uac/Telephone-Assistance.
In many areas of the country, the IRS also has district offices you can visit in person to receive assistance. You can find a directory at the IRS Contact Your Local IRS Office webpage. Unfortunately, all the problems and limitations with calling the IRS described above apply equally to office visits.
If you have a tax question that you want to find the answer to yourself, instead of calling or visiting the IRS, you’ll be better off visiting the extensive IRS website at www.irs.gov. It contains every IRS publication, FAQs, and much other helpful guidance. Of course, reading IRS materials will be much more time consuming than getting a question answered over the phone. Also, such materials are written from the IRS’s point of view and may not always give you the best guidance.