K. W. “Hutch” Hutchinson, CPA, CFP®

Providing solutions to your taxing problems

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Here’s what taxpayers should know about penalty relief

Taxpayers who make an effort to comply with the law, but are unable to meet their tax obligations due to circumstances beyond their control may qualify for relief from penalties.

After receiving a notice stating the IRS assessed a penalty, taxpayers should check that the information in the notice is correct. Those who can resolve an issue in their notice may get relief from certain penalties, which include failing to:

  • File a tax return
  • Pay on time
  • Deposit certain taxes as required

The IRS offers the following types of penalty relief:

Reasonable cause
This relief is based on all the facts and circumstances in a taxpayer’s situation. The IRS will consider this relief when the taxpayer can show they tried to meet their obligations, but were unable to do so. Situations when this could happen include a house fire, natural disaster and a death in the immediate family.

Administrative Waiver and First Time Penalty Abatement 
A taxpayer may qualify for relief from certain penalties if he or she:

  • Didn’t previously have to file a return or had no penalties for the three tax years prior to the tax year in which the IRS assessed a penalty.
  • Filed all currently required returns or filed an extension of time to file.
  • Paid, or arranged to pay, any tax due.

Before asking for First Time Abatement relief, taxpayers can request that the IRS first consider the reasonable cause relief provision. This preserves access to the First Time Abatement, which taxpayers may only use every three years.

Statutory Exception
In certain situations, legislation may provide an exception to a penalty. Taxpayers who received incorrect written advice from the IRS may qualify for a statutory exception.

Taxpayers who received a notice or letter saying the IRS didn’t grant the request for penalty relief may use the Penalty Appeal Online Self-help Tool.

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Dos and Don’ts for Taxpayers Who Get a Letter from the IRS

Every year the IRS mails millions of letters to taxpayers for many reasons. Here are some tips and suggestions for taxpayers who receive one:

Don’t ignore it. Most IRS letters and notices are about federal tax returns or tax accounts. Each notice deals with a specific issue and includes specific instructions on what to do.

Don’t panic. The IRS and its authorized private collection agencies do send letters by mail. Most of the time all the taxpayer needs to do is read the letter carefully and take the appropriate action.

Do take timely action. A notice may reference changes to a taxpayer’s account, taxes owed, a payment request or a specific issue on a tax return. Taking action timely could minimize additional interest and penalty charges.

Do review the information. If a letter is about a changed or corrected tax return, the taxpayer should review the information and compare it with the original return. If the taxpayer agrees, they should make notes about the corrections on their personal copy of the tax return, and keep it for their records.

Don’t reply unless instructed to do so. There is usually no need for a taxpayer to reply to a notice unless specifically instructed to do so. On the other hand, taxpayers who owe should reply with a payment. IRS.gov has information about payment options.

Do respond to a disputed notice. If a taxpayer does not agree with the IRS, they should mail a letter explaining why they dispute the notice. They should mail it to the address on the contact stub at the bottom of the notice. The taxpayer should include information and documents for the IRS to review when considering the dispute. The taxpayer should allow at least 30 days for the IRS to respond.

Do remember that there is usually no need to call the IRS. If a taxpayer must contact the IRS by phone, they should use the number in the upper right-hand corner of the notice. The taxpayer should have a copy of the tax return and letter when calling.

Do avoid scams. The IRS will never initiate contact using social media or text message. The first contact from the IRS usually comes in the mail. Taxpayers who are unsure if they owe money to the IRS can view their tax account information on IRS.gov.

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What taxpayers should know about tax return copies and transcripts

The IRS recommends that taxpayers keep a copy of tax returns for at least three years. Doing so can help taxpayers prepare future tax returns or even assist with amending a prior year’s return. If a taxpayer is unable to locate copies of previous year tax returns, they should check with their software provider or tax preparer first. Tax returns are available from IRS for a fee.

Even though taxpayers may have a copy of their tax return, some taxpayers need a transcript. These are often necessary for a mortgage or college financial aid application.

Here is some information about copies of tax returns and transcripts that can help taxpayers know when and how to get them:

Transcripts
To get a transcript, taxpayers can:

  • Order online. They can use the Get Transcript tool on IRS.gov. Users must authenticate their identity with the Secure Access process.
  • Order by mail. Taxpayers can use Get Transcript by Mail or call 800-908-9946 to order a tax return transcripts and/or tax account transcripts.
  • Complete and send either Form 4506-T or Form 4506T-EZ to the IRS. They should use Form 4506-T to request other tax records, such as a tax account transcript, record of account, wage and income, and a verification of non-filing.

Transcripts are free and available for the current tax year and the past three years. A transcript usually displays most line items from the tax return. This includes marital status, the type of return filed, adjusted gross income and taxable income. It also includes items from any related forms and schedules filed. It doesn’t reflect any changes the taxpayer or the IRS may have made to the original return.

Taxpayers needing a transcript should remember to plan ahead. Delivery times for online and phone orders typically take five to 10 days from the time the IRS receives the request. Taxpayers should allow 30 days to receive a transcript ordered by mail, and 75 days for copies of your tax return.

Copies of tax returns
Taxpayers who need an actual copy of a tax return can get one for the current tax year and as far back as six years. The fee per copy is $50. A taxpayer will complete and mail Form 4506 to request a copy of a tax return. They should mail the request to the appropriate IRS office listed on the form.

Taxpayers who live in a federally declared disaster area can get a free copy of their tax return. More disaster relief information is available on IRS.gov.