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IRS plans open houses to help those with tax issues

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, March 25, 2010; A17

The tax code is complicated enough, but some people who tried to learn more about a recent Internal Revenue Service initiative to help those in economic distress discovered anew why Americans get so frustrated with the agency charged with collecting our tax dollars.

I recently reported on IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman's plans to hold 1,000 open houses on selected Saturdays through early summer, with the first occurring on March 27. Shulman said that if individuals and small-business owners brought their information to an open house, they should be able to walk out with their tax issues resolved.

The IRS had promised to publish information on its Web site, telling people where to get this help. Yet, when I checked http://www.irs.gov, there was no obvious, direct link to the information. This was supposed to be a major effort to help taxpayers, especially the unemployed, who are having financial trouble.

Somehow people were supposed to know that when they went to the site, they had to click on "Contact IRS" at the very top of the page.

Then they were supposed to know to click on the link for "Contact Your Local IRS Office" to find information about IRS taxpayer assistance centers.

Under the heading of "extended hours," they could then find a link to participating offices for the March 27 date. The announcement on the IRS Web site specifically says the special hours are "to give struggling taxpayers more opportunity to work directly with IRS employees" and "during the expanded Saturday hours, taxpayers will be able to address economic hardship issues." One taxpayer, unable to find the information online, visited a Maryland center that happened to be listed as one of the offices hosting a special open house.

According to the taxpayer, who asked to remain anonymous, she was told there wouldn't be a specialist on-site to help folks who were having trouble paying their taxes.

"So are the 1,000 open houses nationwide only a dream in Shulman's mind?" the woman wrote in an e-mail. "I desperately need help in paying my taxes." Other taxpayers who contacted me also reported frustration with finding information online about the special open houses.

I contacted the IRS, suggesting that perhaps it would make sense to provide a more direct way for people to find the centers for this major outreach.

Now there is such a link. I don't know if my calls had anything to do with it, but shortly after my queries, the agency put information about the first open house on a rotating list of spotlight topics on its home page. Click on the picture captioned "IRS Assistance," and you will be taken to a notice about the open houses.

As for the reader who was worried she wouldn't be helped, Susan Carroll, the agency's director of customer assistance, relationships and education, said the woman was given incorrect information. Carroll said centers are being sent a special procedural guide to aid taxpayers.

"We are pulling out all the stops to make sure we have the services available or contacts available for people who come in on Saturday," Carroll said.

At least 40 IRS personnel from various departments are being sent out to help taxpayers face to face, Carroll said. More than 180 centers will be open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on March 27. For smaller offices and those without the extra help, there will be virtual assistance.

"People from collections, exam personnel and others will be available by phone," Carroll said. "If people come in, they don't need to worry if someone will be there to help them. We will take care of them."

If you happen to visit one of the special open houses, let me know about your experience and whether you were helped in any way. Send me an e-mail at colorofmoney@washpost.com. But even if you do encounter problems, don't let that stop you from finding a way to resolve your tax issues. Waiting to fix the problem only makes your tax debt grow.

Speaking of delays, 1.4 million people who did not file a federal income tax return for 2006 are owed more than $1.3 billion in unclaimed refunds. And time is of the essence to collect that money.

The 2006 return must be filed with the IRS no later than this April 15. You can't get the refund if you haven't filed tax returns for 2007 or 2008.

For most taxpayers, there is only a three-year window to claim a refund. The IRS estimates the median unclaimed refund among the people who didn't file a 2006 return is $604.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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