Erin M. Collins

Source: Erin M. Collins

If you are one of the millions of Americans struggling with IRS problems, you may not realize that there is another option for your unresolved problems.

The Taxpayer Advocate Service, known as TAS, is an independent agency within the agency, providing one-on-one counseling and campaigning for systemic change.

Erin Collins, the national taxpayer, heads about 80 nationwide offices for struggling filers, consults within the IRS, reports annually to Congress on the agency’s biggest problems, and presents legislative proposals.

She took over the reins in March 2020, sitting front row to the devastating effects of the pandemic, contributing to “the most challenging year taxpayers and tax professionals have ever experienced,” as detailed in her 2021 annual report to Congress.

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The National Taxpayer Advocate’s hotline handled nearly 3 million calls between October 1, 2020 and September 30, 2021, a 990% increase over the previous 12 months, and received 264,343 new cases.

And currently, the IRS is under a backlog of tens of millions of unprocessed returns, which Commissioner Charles Rettig expects to clear by the end of 2022.

CNBC spoke to Collins about her key role at an unprecedented time for the IRS. The interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

Kate Dore: I’d love to hear about your career path to becoming the National Taxpayer.

Erin Collins: You make me smile when you ask like I really intended this. When I was in law school, one of my professors, who I believe has always wanted to work for the IRS Chief Counsel, pointed me in that direction.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, but in hindsight it was a good choice. So I went straight from law school to the IRS Chief Counsel. I worked there for about 15 years and wore multiple hats that were very useful for my current position.

And then I joined [accounting firm] KPMG in their IRS controversy practice, which was interesting because it changes from one side of the table to the other. They view taxes very differently than the IRS.

KD: You started working for the Taxpayer Advocaten in March 2020. What made you most interested in this role?

EC: So I just announced my retirement from KPMG and I was really thinking about retiring. I had no intention of going back to tax territory. And when the position became vacant, it was the only job I would have considered retiring.

I find it a fascinating position and I am very privileged to serve as the national taxpayer’s advocate. We can be independent, step back and see things a little differently than our IRS colleagues.

KD: Your 2021 annual report to Congress outlined a number of IRS recommendations. Which of the proposed changes are we most likely to see in the near term?

EC: Boy, that’s a tough one. There are tons of recommendations, and some of them have already been implemented.

One was for direct debit announcements. We recommended that the IRS postpone or suspend it until the correspondence backlog is cleared. They recently agreed to suspend many of those fines, which I think has been a big help to taxpayers.

One of the things I firmly believe in – and I think the pandemic has really emphasized the need for it – is a robust online account for individual taxpayers and businesses.

I think the intent of the IRS is to further increase the functionality of online accounts. It’s just a little slower than I’d like.

KD: What are the biggest obstacles to achieving all the improvements you’ve suggested?

EC: The biggest challenge for technology is sustainable finance. It is very difficult to tackle a large IT project if you do not know what your budget will be from year to year. The biggest challenge for the IRS is to really modernize and get to where I think they want to be.

I think they want people with a smartphone or computer to have access to IRS representatives or chatbots for answers to basic questions.

Whether it’s uploading documents or filing returns, if a large percentage of taxpayers can do that online, that would free up the phones for those who really need it.

KD: Is there a specific section of your website that you would recommend as a starting point for someone with an IRS problem?

EC: We have a qualifications section of the website that I would recommend. We have what I would call two buckets: the one with financial problems and the one with systemic problems.

For example, let’s say the IRS said they would process your correspondence within 60 days, and now it’s 90 or 120 days after that period. You are eligible for the services of TAS.

Unfortunately, that’s a very large number of taxpayers over the past two years. There are millions eligible for our service.

Who can qualify for TAS assistance:

Financial problemsIRS system issueFair and fair treatment

See if you qualify with the TAS qualification tool.

KD: Is there anything else that is important for readers to know about the Taxpayer Advocate Service?

The past two years have been incredibly difficult for taxpayers and tax professionals due to the challenges of inventory backlog, and many taxpayers are still waiting for their refunds.

One of the misconceptions is that we don’t understand our authority. For example, if there is an error on your return and the IRS is incorrect, we will work with you. But we don’t have the authority to fix the problem. We refer it to our colleagues at the IRS and advocate on your behalf.

Taxpayer Advocate Service Resources:

This post Meet Erin Collins, National Taxpayer Attorney for the IRS

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