WASHINGTON Oct 2 The shutdown of the federal
government has left some tax delinquents defenseless against
U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) asset seizures, tax
professionals said on Wednesday.
Some IRS tax collectors who pursue individuals and
businesses that are delinquent are working through the shutdown,
but IRS staff who help these taxpayers defend themselves from
collectors have been furloughed, lawyers said.
"The IRS can levy, but we can't get the help to stop the
levy," said Diana Leyden, a tax lawyer and director of the
low-income taxpayer clinic at the University of Connecticut.
"This is a real problem."
Leyden said her group assists as many as 140 people a year
in fighting IRS disputes.
Asked about the situation, a U.S. Treasury Department
spokeswoman referred questions to the IRS's shutdown-contingency
plan, which says the agency is continuing activities "necessary
for the protection of government property," including "seizure
cases." She declined to comment further.
An IRS spokeswoman said the agency's "shutdown plan is
consistent with (its) legal requirements."
Under tax law, the IRS can seize property from Americans who
have not paid their taxes. Known as levies, such seizures can
target bank account balances, real estate or other assets.
With the shutdown two days old and continuing, other parts
of the IRS are closed, including its customer-service phone
lines and its staff of full-time taxpayer advocates. IRS walk-in
taxpayer assistance centers are also closed.
The U.S. Tax Court, which handles about 90 percent of
challenges by taxpayers to the IRS, is also closed.
Despite this, tax levies are still being mailed
automatically and enforced by IRS agents who were not
IRS levies can often be halted before a seizure occurs, but
only when help is available, lawyers said.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, Alicia Mitchell said she has two
clients who are losing about $150 a month from their Social
Security checks because of IRS levies.
"That's the really frustrating part about the shutdown,"
said Mitchell, director of the low-income taxpayer clinic at the
University of Arkansas that serves up to 150 clients a year.
"There's no access for people who are really suffering from
levies," she said.
Levies are different from tax liens. A lien is a claim used
as security for a tax debt, while a levy actually takes the
assets or property to satisfy the tax debt.
The IRS has furloughed all Taxpayer Advocate Service
staffers, according to the IRS' Sept. 30 shutdown plan. Created
in 1996, this service offers free help to taxpayers facing
problems with the IRS in all 50 states.
The Taxpayer Advocate Service did not exist in its current
form during the last government shutdown in 1995-1996.
For the six-month period ending in March, the Taxpayer
Advocate handled 4,261 levy cases, down from 5,600 cases in the
year-before period, according to a June report.
Without Taxpayer Advocate Service help, "there's no avenue
for relief. You're unduly harming a taxpayer," said Laurie
Conner, who represents taxpayers before the IRS in Atlanta.