Advocate: IRS needs greater understanding of domestic violence

By Bernie Becker

1/11/12

The IRS is ill-equipped to deal with victims of domestic abuse and violence, with some employees not having received needed training, according to a new federal report.

The Office of the Taxpayer Advocate, an in-house and independent watchdog of the IRS, said abuse victims are often unaware of their tax and financial situations — and thus sometimes unable to supply paperwork required by the agency.

With that in mind, agency employees might perceive abuse victims as being shifty or trying to avoid their obligations.

“Because IRS employees are not adequately trained to recognize and address domestic violence and abuse, the IRS may be complicit in achieving the wrong result — imposing or collecting tax inappropriately, or from the wrong taxpayer,” Nina Olson, the taxpayer advocate, wrote in her annual report to Congress. “Conversely, greater awareness of domestic violence and abuse would help it arrive at the correct tax result and actually alleviate harm.”

According to Olson’s report, abuse victims can be pressured into signing joint returns and might be unable to prevent fraud conducted in their name.

The report to Congress also calls on the IRS to require certain employees to take domestic violence training crafted by the advocate’s office, and states that the agency does not currently have a centralized location where staffers can learn about the tax problems caused by abuse.

Olson’s push on domestic violence comes months after the IRS scrapped a policy that gave taxpayers who did not know their spouses had cheated on a joint return two years to file for protection.

The taxpayer advocate’s office was among those that had pressed the agency to alter that policy, arguing that tax evaders can often ensure that their husbands and wives aren’t aware of any fraud for more than two years.

IRS spokeswoman Michelle Eldridge said Wednesday that the agency had taken a number of steps to aid innocent spouses — including new guidelines, announced last week, that the IRS said will protect more husbands and wives.

“The IRS takes seriously the effects that domestic violence and abuse may have on taxpayers,” Eldridge told The Hill in a statement. “We recognize that abusive situations could result in tax
consequences to the taxpayers that they can be powerless to prevent.”

An official with the taxpayer advocate said the office updated its domestic violence training after finding that it was not being used frequently, and that IRS staffers needed more help understanding the behavior and psychology of abuse victims.

All 2,000 staffers in the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate are required to take the updated training.

Source: The Hill