You Can't Get There From Here

Warren Ward |

We’re all familiar with today’s title but when I tried to track down its actual roots, I became confused. According to multiple websites, it relates to a farmer in Maine trying to give a traveler directions to town. As a twenty-plus year resident of Columbus, I was pretty sure it referred to our interesting collection of one-way streets, several of which allow traffic to go both ways.


I chose the phrase to introduce you to Nina Olsen, the head of the IRS’ office of Taxpayer Advocacy who recently retired after eighteen years in the role. Perhaps you didn’t know there was such a department but it does exist and it does advocate for individual taxpayers. Under her leadership, the department produced this ‘road map’ of the IRS processing system. Puzzle fans can click on the map for a link to a full-size version.

One of Olsen’s goals was to make the IRS more ‘user friendly’ and I believe there has been some progress over the years. Her efforts have been both helped and hampered by Congress’ continued reductions in agency funding. With a smaller audit staff, fewer people’s returns are being examined. However, budget reductions also mean more time spent on hold waiting to speak with someone on the help desk.


Taxes are an important aspect of our financial planning practice and, despite Ms. Olsen’s efforts, seem to have gotten more complex over the years. In order to keep up, I complete twenty hours of tax-related continuing education every year. We also license software to help us estimate taxes and subscribe to multiple tax update services. We do these things because tax planning is a key aspect of our practice. We invest significant time and effort in helping our clients make good decisions regarding taxes, just as we do in many other aspects of their lives. However, we don’t complete returns. Instead we stay in touch with multiple preparers whom we recommend in specific situations. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I attend tax updates in person instead of utilizing the more efficient webinar approach. Listening to tax preparers’ questions to the presenters and speaking with them during breaks gives me helpful insights regarding both their technical abilities and their perspectives.


It’s easy to be suspicious of an organization that can be seen as taking money from our pockets but it’s clear that our government needs to collect taxes in order to continue providing services on which citizens rely. It has always been our approach that each of us should pay all the taxes we owe but never more. In addition to providing the tax map and becoming involved in numerous individual cases, Ms. Olsen’s office also proposed a Taxpayer Bill of Rights that the agency has adopted. Those include a right to quality service and a commitment that no one should pay more than is due.


The office of the Taxpayer Advocate is currently being filled by an ‘acting’ replacement, Bridget Roberts. She brings a long history of service in a range of roles and we can only hope she plans to continue the high level of advocacy we’ve enjoyed over the past eighteen years.