When individuals fill out their tax returns, billions of dollars -- both for individual taxpayers and for the federal government -- are at stake. This is one reason why more than half of U.S. taxpayers rely on paid tax preparers to help them.
And yet, there are no national standards to ensure tax preparers are well qualified to play this critical role (only four states have taken licensing into their own hands) despite the fact that many preparers are error-prone, or worse. When the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration sent auditors into the field to pose as taxpayers seeking preparer services in 2008, 61 percent of the resulting tax returns were found to be flawed. While 65 percent of the mistakes were honest lapses, the other 35 percent were “willful or reckless” misstatements or omissions. The Government Accountability Office reached similar conclusions in a 2006 study, and the National Taxpayer Advocate has been sounding the alarm on this issue for years.
The IRS recently found that the net "tax gap" (the difference between taxes owed and taxes paid after enforcement measures are taken) was $385 billion in 2006, and that $235 billion came from individual income tax underreporting. Tax preparers certainly had a great deal to do with this.
And even relatively small parts of this problem -- like underreporting related to income tax credits, which accounted for $28 billion of the tax gap -- can have huge implications for the individual families affected. For example, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) involves complicated rules and steep penalties for the taxpayer if any misrepresentations are identified, even if the mistakes are inadvertent or caused by preparer error. Roughly half of returns claiming an EITC in 2011 were filed with the help of an unregulated preparer.
While the rate of EITC overpayments has been greatly overstated, the truth is that there are too many overpayments and underpayments of EITC benefits and incompetent or nefarious preparers are partly to blame. Some have been known to offer EITC refunds in the form of deceptive loan products with exorbitant fees.
In reaction to these concerns, the IRS issued regulations in 2011 that would require unenrolled paid preparers to pass a certification exam, pay fees, and take continuing education courses. These regulations are not unprecedented. Some paid preparers who also represent taxpayers before the IRS during appeal proceedings -- like attorneys, certified public accountants, and “enrolled agents” -- are already regulated. And similar requirements currently apply to volunteer tax preparers who work through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
Unfortunately, the 2011 regulations were never implemented because commercial tax preparers attempting to avoid the certification requirements brought suit and won in federal district court. The challengers claimed that the IRS only had statutory authority to regulate preparers that assist taxpayers in their dealings with the IRS after their returns have already been filed (the aforementioned “enrolled” agents), not those who help prepare the return before filing. While it may not seem like a meaningful distinction, federal judges have now ruled against the IRS twice. The latest rebuke came this week from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Assuming the Supreme Court does not take up the case (the IRS has not yet announced if it will appeal), the burden will fall on Congress to give the IRS the explicit authority to pursue these important reforms. As the National Community Tax Coalition and the National Consumer Law Center wrote in their amicus brief to the DC Circuit Court, “Without such regulation, consumers are at the mercy of an industry with no minimum training or competency standards for one of the most critical financial transactions that consumers engage in every year.”