Paid Tax Return Preparers:

In a Limited Study, Chain Preparers Made Serious Errors

GAO-06-563T: Published: Apr 4, 2006. Publicly Released: Apr 4, 2006.

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Despite the importance of paid tax return preparers in helping taxpayers fulfill their obligations, little data exist on the quality of services they provide. Paid preparers include, for example, enrolled agents, who are approved by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) once they pass an examination on tax matters or demonstrate past IRS employment experience, and unenrolled preparers, who include self-employed individuals and people employed by commercial tax preparation chains. GAO was asked to determine (1) what the characteristics were of tax returns done by paid preparers, (2) what government regulation exists for paid preparers, and (3) what specific issues taxpayers might encounter in using paid preparers. To do its work, GAO analyzed IRS data, reviewed paid preparer regulatory requirements, and had tax returns prepared at 19 outlets of several tax preparation chains.

Many taxpayers choose to pay others to prepare their tax returns rather than prepare their own returns. According to the most recent reliable data, about 56 percent of all the individual tax returns filed for tax year 2002 used a paid preparer, with higher paid preparer usage among taxpayers with more complicated returns such as those claiming the earned income credit (EIC). All paid preparers are subject to some IRS regulations and may be penalized if they fail to follow them. For example, all paid preparers must identify themselves on the returns they prepare and must not deliberately understate a taxpayer's tax liability. When the EIC is involved, paid preparers must also ask specific questions to determine a taxpayer's eligibility for the credit. In GAO visits to commercial preparers, paid preparers often prepared returns that were incorrect, with tax consequences that were sometimes significant. Their work resulted in unwarranted extra refunds of up to almost $2,000 in 5 instances, while in 2 cases they cost the taxpayer over $1,500. Some of the most serious problems involved preparers not reporting business income in 10 of 19 cases; not asking about where a child lived or ignoring GAO's answer to the question and, therefore, claiming an ineligible child for the EIC in 5 out of the 10 applicable cases; failing to take the most advantageous postsecondary education tax benefit in 3 out of the 9 applicable cases; and failing to itemize deductions at all or failing to claim all available deductions in 7 out of the 9 applicable cases. GAO discussed these findings with IRS and referred to it problems that were found. Had these problems been discovered by IRS on real returns, IRS officials said that many of the preparers would have been subject to penalties for such things as negligence and willful or reckless disregard of tax rules.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should conduct necessary research to determine the extent to which paid preparers live up to their responsibility to file accurate and complete tax returns based on information they obtain from their customers. In conducting this research, the Commissioner should consider whether the methodology we used would provide IRS with a more complete understanding of paid preparers' performance.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Beginning in June 2009, IRS conducted a Return Preparer Review to identify issues in the tax return preparer community. IRS solicited input from GAO, tax return preparers, consumer advocacy groups, and the public. In January 2010, IRS announced completion of that review and the beginning of several initiatives to strengthen the competency of tax return preparers and IRS oversight of the preparer community. Included in these efforts have been undercover visits to paid preparers by IRS agents posing as taxpayers. IRS has described these stepped up enforcement efforts during the 2010 filing season as elements of a longer-term effort to improve the oversight of the paid preparer community.

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