Sometimes, a taxpayer may find himself in a situation where his problem cannot be resolved through normal IRS channels. In this case, one of the options is to secure the help of the Taxpayer Advocate Service (“TAS”). TAS can issue a Taxpayer Assistance Order (TAO) to require the IRS to desist from a certain action that causes the taxpayer to suffer or about to suffer a significant hardship. At this point a logical question arises: what does “significant hardship” mean in this context? In this article, I will try to answer this question and introduce the readers to the Significant Hardship definition.
Significant Hardship Definition: Background Information
The Taxpayer Advocate Service is an independent organization within the IRS, led by the National Taxpayer Advocate (“NTA”). Each state has at least one Local Taxpayer Advocate (“LTA”), who is independent of the local IRS office and reports directly to the NTA.
TAS helps individual and business taxpayers resolve problems with the IRS by:
- • Ensuring that taxpayer problems not resolved through normal IRS channels are promptly and impartially handled;
- • Assisting taxpayers who are facing hardships; identifying issues that impact taxpayer rights, increase taxpayer burden or otherwise create problems for taxpayers, and bringing these issues to the attention of IRS management; and
- • Recommending administrative and legislative changes through the National Taxpayer Advocate’s Annual Report to Congress.
Pursuant to §7811(a); 7803(c); Reg. §301.7811-1(a)(1), NTA has the authority to issue TAO when the taxpayer is suffering or is about to suffer a significant hardship as a result of the manner in the administration of tax laws, including action or inaction on the part of the IRS. TAO may have broad implications, including obligating the IRS to release a levy, stop a collection action and even stop an audit.
Significant Hardship Definition: General Definition
Treas. Reg. §301.7811-1(a)(4)(ii) defines “significant hardship” as “a serious privation caused or about to be caused to the taxpayer as the result of the particular manner in which the revenue laws are being administered by the IRS.” Significant hardship includes situations in which “a system or procedure fails to operate as intended or fails to resolve the taxpayer’s problem or dispute with the IRS”.
The regulations state a non-exclusive list of four situations that the IRS classifies as significant hardship:
“(A) An immediate threat of adverse action; (B) A delay of more than 30 days in resolving taxpayer account problems; (C) The incurring by the taxpayer of significant costs (including fees for professional representation) if relief is not granted; or (D) Irreparable injury to, or a long-term adverse impact on, the taxpayer if relief is not granted.” Id.
It should be pointed out that even if the taxpayer’s situation falls within any of these four situations (or a similar situation that the NTA agrees that it constitutes significant hardship), it does not mean that NTA will automatically issue TAO. Rather, NTA must still determine whether the facts and the law support such a dramatic relief for the taxpayer.
Let’s go over each of the four categories of significant hardship one by one.
Significant Hardship Definition: Immediate Threat of Adverse Action
The Treasury Regulations do not detail the definition of this category except to provide the following example of what “immediate threat of adverse action” means:
“The IRS serves a levy on A’s bank account. A needs the bank funds to pay for a medically necessary surgical procedure that is scheduled to take place in one week. If the levy is not released, A will lack the funds necessary to have the procedure. A is experiencing an immediate threat of adverse action.”
Significant Hardship Definition: Delay of More Than 30 Days
There are two situations when a delay of more than 30 days may result in significant hardship. First, “when a taxpayer does not receive a response by the date promised by the IRS.” Treas. Reg. §301.7811-1(a)(4)(iii). Second, “when the IRS has established a normal processing time for taking an action and the taxpayer experiences a delay of more than 30 days beyond the normal processing time.” Id.
The regulations give the following example of a delay causing significant hardship: “B files a Form 4506, ‘Request for a Copy of Tax Return.’ B does not receive the photocopy of the tax return after waiting more than 30 days beyond the normal time for processing.”
Significant Hardship Definition: Significant Costs
The Treasury Regulations again do not detail the definition of this category except to provide the following example of what “significant costs” means:
“The IRS sends XYZ, Inc. a notice requesting payment of the outstanding employment taxes and penalties owed by XYZ, Inc. The notice indicates that XYZ, Inc. has small employment tax balances with respect to 12 employment tax quarters totaling $10x. XYZ, Inc. provides documentation to the IRS that it contends shows that if all payments were applied to each quarter correctly, there would be no balance due. The IRS requests additional records and documentation. Because there are 12 quarters involved, to comply with this request XYZ, Inc. asserts that it will need to hire an accountant, who estimates he will charge at least $5x to organize all the records and provide a detailed analysis of how to apply the deposits and payments. XYZ, Inc. is facing significant costs.” Treas. Reg. §301.7811-1(a)(4)(iv).
Significant Hardship Definition: Irreparable Injury
The IRS again fails to detail the definition of this category beyond providing an example of an “irreparable injury”:
“D has arranged with a bank to refinance his mortgage to lower his monthly payment. D is unable to make the current monthly payment. Unless the monthly payment amount is lowered, D will lose his residence to foreclosure. The IRS refuses to subordinate the Federal tax lien, as permitted by section 6325(d), or discharge the property subject to the lien, as permitted by section 6325(b). As a result, the bank will not allow D to refinance. D is facing an irreparable injury if relief is not granted.” Id.
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