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Taxpayers are in for a 'rough filing season,' warns CPA: How best to get answers from the IRS

"I am deeply concerned about the upcoming filing season," said National Taxpayer Advocate Erin M. Collins.

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Tax season is officially here: The IRS begins accepting and processing 2021 tax year returns Monday, January 24. But if you have questions, don't expect it'll be easy to get someone at the IRS to give you answers.

The agency has tried to "manage expectations" and let people know that "this is going to be another rough filing season," says Henry Grzes, a lead manager for tax practice and ethics at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. "They are clearly challenged with the tasks they have been asked to do over these last two years," which include disbursing stimulus payments and Child Tax Credit advances, he says.

"It's going to be a challenging time for everyone."

In 2021, the agency had a logjam of 35 million returns that needed manual processing, according to an annual report from the Taxpayer Advocate Service. Taxpayers who called to ask about their financial situations had just a 1 in 9 chance of being answered — and those who did get through lingered on hold for an average 23 minutes.

Consumers could face similar challenges this year. As of late December, the IRS still had backlogs including more than 8 million original and amended individual returns to process, and about 5 million pieces of taxpayer correspondence to answer.

"While my report focuses primarily on the problems of 2021, I am deeply concerned about the upcoming filing season," National Taxpayer Advocate Erin M. Collins said in a statement. "Paper is the IRS's Kryptonite, and the agency is still buried in it."

To make it as easy as possible on yourself to file before the April 18 deadline, these strategies could help you contact, or get the info you need from, the IRS.

Review the IRS website first to find answers to FAQs

Make your first stop the IRS website, which bills itself as "easy to use and available 24 hours a day." Many questions related to finding your records from last year, getting a tax bill instead of a refund, tracking down a return, or even about missing stimulus or CTC money can be answered there.

"They do provide a wealth of information," Grzes says. But "it's up to you, the taxpayer, to go look for it, and you have to know what you're looking for. They have certain interactive tools incorporated into their website to track your return," for example, among other useful features.

Not every inquiry can be solved that way, however, so if your search is coming up blank, it may be wise to bring in your own help.

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"Asking a tax preparer or tax attorney, utilizing help from your tax software provider, and talking with a family member or friend about your questions" are all good options, Mark Jaeger, vice president of tax development at TaxAct, previously told Grow.

A certified tax professional can offer guidance and help you avoid mistakes, experts say.

How to call the IRS

For reference, here are some key phone numbers for the agency:

  • For individuals: (800) 829-1040
  • For businesses: (800) 829-4933
  • For hearing impaired individuals with access to TTY/TDD equipment: (800) 829-4059

If you have no good option but to call the IRS or are experiencing an urgent matter like tax fraud, doing some prep work could streamline the process. You'll need information on hand to verify your identity like your Social Security number and individual taxpayer identification number.

The biggest thing you may need, however, is patience.

"The service is in the roughest shape it's been in in 50 years," Mark Everson, former IRS commissioner during the George W. Bush administration, told NPR. There are "huge backlogs right now that are unprocessed returns from prior years, refund requests, a lot of correspondence that hasn't even been opened, and ... it's very tough to get through on the phone."

Calling early and often may offer you an edge. "I usually tell my clients, if you have to call the IRS try calling at 8 or 8:30 in the morning because they're usually not as busy," says Howard Samuels, a certified public accountant at Samuels & Associates in Florham Park, New Jersey.

Be proactive when filing taxes this season

The key to a smooth tax season is getting ready early, experts say. Given the anticipated challenges, it's better to know early if you have a question that may require a call to the IRS or assistance from a tax professional.

Filing early has other benefits, too: If you're due a refund, filing sooner could mean getting paid sooner. And if you owe, it's a good way to get ahead of the bill.

The IRS budget has declined roughly 20% in the past 10 years while the number of tax returns filed has gone up 13%, according to Collins. While Congress proposed more funding to help boost the agency's efficiency, it's best to be proactive about your individual tax concerns.

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