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Most people know that breaking tax rules, even accidentally, can bring serious consequences like an audit. It may seem like a one-way street, but the IRS has to follow rules, too.
The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which the IRS adopted in 2014, summarizes taxpayer rights scattered throughout the tax code, making it easier to understand what the IRS can and can’t do.
The 10 elements of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights
1. The right to be informed
What it is: You have the right to know what you need to do to comply with the tax laws. You are entitled to clear explanations of the laws and the right to be informed about IRS decisions about your tax accounts.
What it means: The IRS has to explain why it’s doing what it’s doing to you, how much you owe and why you owe it, and how to get information about the rules.
2. The right to quality service
What it is: You have the right to prompt, courteous, and professional help when you interact with the IRS. The IRS and its employees must communicate with you in a way you can understand.
What it means: IRS representatives must listen to you, consider relevant information, and answer your questions promptly, accurately and thoroughly. You are allowed to ask for and speak to an IRS employee’s supervisor if you have a problem.
3. The right to pay no more than the correct amount of tax
What it is: You have the right to pay only the amount of tax that’s legally due, including interest and penalties.
What it means: The IRS has to apply your tax payments to your tax bill properly. You can get a refund if you’ve overpaid your taxes, dispute an erroneous IRS bill, amend a tax return you already filed, dispute interest charges incurred as the result of delays that were the IRS' fault and submit an offer in compromise if you don’t believe you owe all or part of your tax debt.
4. The right to challenge the IRS’s position and be heard
What it is: You have the right to object and provide documentation in response to IRS actions, and you have the right to expect the IRS to consider those objections and issue a response.
5. The right to appeal an IRS decision in an independent forum
What it is: You have the right to a fair and impartial appeal of most IRS decisions, including for penalties. You have the right to get a written response about the Office of Appeals’ decision, and you have the right to take your case to court.
What it means: The IRS has to operate an independent Office of Appeals. You can dispute IRS decisions there, as well as in US Tax Court. Generally, if you fully paid a tax and the IRS denies your tax refund claim or doesn’t do anything about it in six months, you can file a refund suit in a United States District Court or the United States Court of Federal Claims. You generally have two years to file a refund suit.
6. The right to finality
What it is: You have the right to know how long you have to challenge the IRS on a matter and how long the IRS has to audit you or collect a tax debt. You also have the right to know when the IRS has finished auditing you.
What it means: The IRS generally has three years to audit a tax return and 10 years to collect unpaid taxes from you. There are exceptions to those timelines. You can claim a refund up to three years late. If the IRS sends you a tax bill, it must include a deadline for when you can file a petition with the Tax Court to challenge the bill.
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7. The right to privacy
What it is: You have the right to expect that IRS inquiries, audits and enforcement actions are not overly intrusive and respect your due process rights.
What it means: The IRS can’t exceed certain limits on the amount of your wages it garnishes. It can’t seize certain personal items to pay your back taxes, and it can’t take your house without court approval. Also, the IRS shouldn’t look for extraneous information about your lifestyle during an audit if there’s no reason to believe you’ve been hiding income.
8. The right to confidentiality
What it is: You have the right to expect the IRS to keep your information private unless you give permission otherwise. You have the right to expect the IRS to do something about employees and tax return preparers who wrongfully disclose your information.
What it means: The IRS has to get your permission to disclose your information. It can’t contact your employer, your neighbors, or your bank to get information unless it gives you reasonable advance notice. In general, the same confidentiality provisions that would apply between you and a lawyer apply between you and people who are authorized to practice before the IRS (such as a CPA or enrolled agent). Tax preparers that knowingly or recklessly disclose your tax information may face criminal fines and prison.
9. The right to retain representation
What it is: You have the right to hire someone to represent you before the IRS. You have the right to get assistance from a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic if you can’t afford to hire someone.
What it means: You can pay a lawyer, CPA or enrolled agent to represent you before the IRS, and you don’t have to attend meetings with the IRS unless it formally summons you to appear. The IRS usually has to stop an interview with you if you ask to consult with someone who represents you.
10. The right to a fair and just tax system
What it is: You have the right to expect the tax system to consider circumstances that might affect your ability to pay or provide information. You have the right to seek help from the Taxpayer Advocate Service if the IRS doesn’t resolve a tax issue properly or timely.
What it means: If you can’t pay your tax bill, you can get on a payment plan with the IRS. You can also submit an offer in compromise asking the IRS to settle your tax debt for less than the full amount. The IRS can’t seize all of your wages to collect back taxes; it has to leave you something to live on. You can seek help from the Taxpayer Advocate Service or Low Income Taxpayer Clinics. The IRS has the power to abate unpaid taxes, as well as interest that’s excessive, wrong or caused by the IRS’s own unreasonable delays or errors.
How the Taxpayer Bill of Rights works
It may be helpful to refer to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights when navigating disputes with the IRS. But they are not necessarily a tool for things like resolving problems with a specific employee, for example. Other options for taxpayers include filing a complaint with the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, which is an IRS watchdog, or turning to the courts.