IRS estimated that $26 billion in refundable tax credits were for the wrong amount or missing documentation in FY 2021. Millions of taxpayers claimed these credits and about half used a paid preparer to complete their returns.
IRS doesn't have the authority to establish professional requirements for all paid tax preparers, so it created a program to educate preparers who submit returns with tax credit errors. IRS's program aims to improve the accuracy of tax returns, but it can only reach a small fraction of paid preparers.
We made recommendations to help Congress and IRS strengthen this program and address issues with paid preparers.
What GAO Found
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) designed the Refundable Credits Return Preparer Strategy program to address improper payments associated with refundable tax credits and other benefits. This program includes tailored education and enforcement actions for paid preparers identified as having returns filed with a high probability of errors. The program aims to change the behavior of paid preparers and their clients and improve the accuracy of returns claiming these credits.
IRS has yet to develop a long-term plan that identifies and links long-term goals, objectives, activities, and performance measures for this program. Instead, program officials have focused on the operation of the program on a year-to-year basis. This includes ensuring preparers at risk of noncompliance are assigned to appropriate compliance actions. However, a long-term plan would provide a road map to help ensure that decisions align with program goals and inform budget requests and resource decisions. Without a long-term plan, program officials will continue to be limited in their ability to plan strategically.
IRS identified a need for an IRS-wide tax return preparer strategy that would ensure consistent treatment of all preparers across different compliance programs. However, progress on the IRS-wide strategy stalled. Thus, how the Refundable Credits Return Preparer Strategy program fits into a broader service-wide strategy remains unclear. IRS officials noted that the strategy cannot be finalized until the IRS-wide reorganization is completed. IRS received significant additional funding as part of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The agency is developing a detailed spend plan for these funds. Officials reported that the IRS-wide strategy was still under consideration within IRS's reorganization. However, until the IRS reorganization is complete and the IRS-wide preparer strategy is implemented, IRS may be missing opportunities to capitalize on prior planning efforts.
While the Refundable Credits Return Preparer Strategy program helps encourage preparer compliance with due diligence requirements, the challenge with preparer accuracy is much broader. IRS data show the program can reach a small fraction—less than 2 percent in 2021—of preparers with education and enforcement activities. Further, tax preparers are not held to uniform standards because IRS lacks the authority to establish professional requirements for all types of preparers. This puts some taxpayers at risk of receiving insufficient or incompetent tax preparation services and potentially burdensome enforcement actions. Providing IRS with the authority to establish requirements for all paid preparers would allow IRS to target its resources more efficiently on noncompliant preparers.
Why GAO Did This Study
Millions of taxpayers claim refundable tax credits each year. About half of taxpayers use a paid preparer, according to the Department of the Treasury. However, these credits have complex eligibility rules that can be difficult to follow. This can result in errors and improper claims. For fiscal year 2021, IRS estimated that it paid $115 billion in refundable tax credits, but $26 billion were improperly paid.
GAO was asked to examine IRS's Refundable Credits Return Preparer Strategy program. This report assesses (1) the extent to which the program incorporates key elements of program design, and (2) how, if at all, IRS could broaden the effect of its strategy to reduce improper payments, among other objectives.
GAO reviewed IRS program data and documentation. GAO also interviewed IRS officials, paid preparers, and industry groups. Further, GAO compared IRS's efforts to guidance on key program elements from the Office of Management and Budget's Circular No. A-11 and IRS's Strategic Plan.
GAO is making six recommendations to IRS. They include IRS developing a long-term plan and finalizing the IRS-wide preparer strategy. GAO is also recommending that Congress grant IRS the authority to establish professional requirements for paid preparers. IRS agreed with five of the recommendations. IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation to finalize the IRS-wide preparer strategy, stating that other reorganization efforts must be completed first.
Matter for Congressional Consideration
|Congress should grant IRS the explicit authority to establish professional requirements for paid tax preparers. (Matter for Consideration 1)||When we confirm what actions have been taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.|
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Internal Revenue Service||The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should test preparer education and compliance treatments in the Refundable Credits Return Preparer Strategy program that use digital services and assess the results of any tests. Examples include warning letters and secure document uploads. (Recommendation 1)|
|Internal Revenue Service||The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should develop a performance measure for the Refundable Credits Return Preparer Strategy program to assess how its preparer treatments affect compliance with due diligence requirements over time. (Recommendation 2)|
|Internal Revenue Service||The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should define and document program elements of the Refundable Credits Return Preparer Strategy program, including its goals, objectives, activities, and performance measures. (Recommendation 3)|
|Internal Revenue Service||The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should develop a long-term plan for the Refundable Credits Return Preparer Strategy program, in coordination with stakeholders, which outlines the program's vision for the future, links program elements together, and clearly aligns to agency strategic goals. (Recommendation 4)|
|Internal Revenue Service||The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should implement a systematic method of tracking internal recommendations for the Refundable Credits Return Preparer Strategy program. (Recommendation 5)|
|Internal Revenue Service||
Priority Rec.The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should finalize the Service-wide Return Preparer Strategy and identify the resources needed to implement it. (Recommendation 6)