IRS is confusing taxpayers with math error notices: report

If you’re one of the 9.4 million Americans who received a “math error” notice from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) this tax season, don’t feel bad if you were confused by what it meant. The Taxpayer Advocate Service is finally here to validate your pain.

According to a blog post this week by Erin M. Collins, the National Taxpayer Advocate, math error notices—which are designed to inform taxpayers about problems with their tax returns that resulted in an adjustment—”remain vague and confusing” to a lot of people, in part because they don’t always explain what exactly led to the adjustment.

Rather, these letters often present a list of potential problems, such as a missing social security number, a dependent who is too old, or an incorrectly calculated amount. This multiple-choice format then leaves taxpayers understandably scratching their heads to try to identify the exact issue. That’s a problem because, as Collins points out, the IRS has the authority to simply make certain adjustments, which means it’s up to taxpayers to request an abatement or a reversal if they disagree with the decision.

And guess what? Taxpayers only have 60 days to do this.

“It is key for taxpayers to understand that once the 60-day time period has elapsed, and the taxpayer has not requested a reversal, they lose their opportunity to have the matter reviewed by the U.S. Tax Court,” Collins writes.

One of the reasons the IRS has been sending out so many math error notices lately is because of pandemic-era changes to tax forms. Notably, the Recovery Rebate Credit allows eligible taxpayers who never received a stimulus check to claim it on their tax returns. There’s no doubt that lots of taxpayers are indeed claiming this credit erroneously, but as Collins points out, no one is helped by correspondence that lacks clarity and specifics.

In her post, Collins says the Taxpayer Advocate Service has recommended that the IRS “provide taxpayers with precise reasons” when it makes an adjustment on tax returns. She also goes into detail about what taxpayers should do if they receive one of these letters.

This isn’t the first time that math error notices have rankled the national taxpayer advocate. As we wrote last year, the IRS agreed to resend 5 million such notices after the advocate pointed out that its correspondence did not inform people of their basic rights.

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