By Amanda Klopp, J.D. ’16
I first became interested in the problems that low income taxpayers face while working with HLS TaxHelp. TaxHelp is a student practice organization that operates in the spring semester and assists low income taxpayers with completing their current year tax returns. While many taxpayers came to TaxHelp with relatively easy tax returns and walked away receiving refunds, other taxpayers came with more complicated issues. Sometimes, taxpayers had problems that we could not help them with, like tax debt from prior years or unfiled prior year returns. These problems could spur threatening notices from the IRS, prevent taxpayers from receiving refunds, and affect taxpayers’ feelings of economic security. Therefore, when I found out the LSC was starting up the Federal Tax Clinic, I was excited to delve into these more complicated issues that would have a big impact on taxpayers’ financial wellbeing.
When beginning in the Federal Tax Clinic, I was particularly interested to know more about the challenges and types of disputes that low income taxpayers most often face. However, I didn’t expect that there would be so much substantive and procedural knowledge required to navigate the waters of the tax controversy system. Fortunately, the Director of the Federal Tax Clinic and our clinical supervisor, Professor Keith Fogg, had an enormous wealth of experience from more than thirty years in the IRS Office of Chief Counsel and from directing a low income taxpayer clinic at Villanova Law School. Through the clinical seminar and daily clinical work, Professor Fogg guided me through the opportunities and hazards the tax controversy system can present.
Each week, I learned about the different types of relief available to taxpayers by filling out the forms and petitions that low income taxpayers would have to fill out themselves in order to obtain relief – and concurrently realized how difficult relief is to obtain without representation. By working through clinical cases, I became familiar with the panoply of IRS correspondence and protocol that accompanies all tax controversies – and realized that such would certainly overwhelm the average taxpayer. By discussing clinical experiences with each other, we created a shared knowledge base of the options available to taxpayers in controversies, the various considerations that came with each option, and the potential ethical concerns that could arise. Soon, we began to strategize about the trajectory of our cases and spot where issues might arise right from the intake meeting.
The Federal Tax Clinic also gave me a great opportunity to advocate on a case-by-case basis and on a more global scale. In the course of the clinic, I wrote a detailed request to the IRS to reconsider the results of an audit, based on new information regarding the taxpayer’s liability. I also had the opportunity to assist in writing an amicus curiae brief for the Tax Court, which advocated for interpreting a filing deadline to be subject to equitable tolling. Other students wrote requests to the IRS for offers in compromise, which are requests to settle taxpayers’ debt for less than the full amount owed. Several students collaborated to submit comments and suggestions to the Tax Court regarding proposed changes to the Tax Court’s Rules of Practice and Procedures and Tax Court forms. These different experiences illustrate that the clinic’s mission is two-fold: to help improve individual taxpayers’ economic circumstances and to encourage policy changes that will hopefully lead to better outcomes in the tax controversy system for all low income taxpayers.