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The IRS gets up to 1,500 calls per second: How to get tax questions answered without being 'on hold forever'

The agency is "getting thousands of calls. It's a hard time to get an answer."

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Have a question about your taxes? You may want to think twice before calling the IRS. As the May 17 filing deadline approaches, the agency is getting swamped with calls — even hitting a peak of 1,500 calls per second on some days, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig said in a hearing Tuesday.

If you do call, it's possible "you are not going to get through or you are going to be on hold forever," Timothy Gagnon, an associate accounting professor at Northeastern University, recently told Grow. The agency is "getting thousands of calls. It's a hard time to get an answer."

The logjam is likely related to the numerous pandemic-era changes to the tax code. Along with lingering questions about third stimulus payments, calls are pouring in about the new retroactive break on unemployment benefits and the freshly expanded Child Tax Credits, all while IRS staff deal with Covid-prompted interruptions to their work routines.

"You've got an IRS right now trying to adjust its program, so that's going to throw a wrench in the system," Gagnon says. "You've got a system hit with Covid and people out, just like any other company."

Here are a few ways to get your burning tax questions answered without having to spend hours on hold.

Check the IRS website

Your first destination should be the IRS website. There you can troubleshoot common issues like tracking down your tax refund, investigating the whereabouts of a missing stimulus check, obtaining your records from previous tax years, or signing up for a payment plan for taxes owed.

The site bills itself as "easy to use and available 24 hours a day."

Try a tax pro

If your issue is unique or you're coming up blank searching the website, it may be time to reach out to a tax professional, says Mark Jaeger, vice president of tax development at TaxAct.

"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, Jaeger says.

Even if you enjoy handling your own money, hiring an accountant to do your taxes may be a good idea, especially if your taxes are complex, says Brandon Berquist, a CPA and tax specialist at Personal Capital. "A certified tax professional will not only help you prepare your taxes, but will also provide guidance on when and how to file, and can help you ensure tax efficiency going forward." 

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How to call the IRS when it's urgent and necessary

There are still some instances when you should brave the wait and call the IRS, especially if it's an urgent matter like suspected fraud. Be sure to have information on hand to verify your identity, including your Social Security number and individual taxpayer identification number.

The phone numbers, for reference, are:

  • 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 do decide to call the IRS, you should set aside plenty of time and patience. The agency has already gotten more than 21 million calls this tax season. One estimate from January says only about 1 of every 11 are being answered.

If you can wait until after tax season ends this year on May 17, you'll likely have better luck.

You've got an IRS right now trying to adjust its program, so that's going to throw a wrench in the system.
Timothy Gagnon
Accounting professor, Northwestern University

An extension on your extension

The IRS extended the tax deadline from April 15 to May 17 to give filers more time to navigate their taxes in the wake of pandemic-related life changes, and most states have followed suit.

If all else fails and you're unable to get an answer you need to file on time, there's the last resort of filing an extension, Jaeger says. That gives you a reprieve and a new filing deadline of October 15 — though if you owe the IRS money, you'll still have to pay up an estimate of what you owe by May 17.

By filing an extension now, Jaeger says, you can "hopefully get ahold of a representative when things slow down for [the IRS], after May 17."

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