Sam Brotman, JD, LLM, MBA May 4, 2022 15 min read

What is an IRS Taxpayer Advocate?

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Sam Brotman, JD, LLM, MBA

Owner and Director of Legal
Brotman Law

The IRS Taxpayer Advocate helps taxpayers resolve problems with the IRS and also recommends changes to help prevent problems in the future. The Taxpayer Advocate handles those issues when the tax problem is causing significant financial difficulty, when you or your business are facing immediate, adverse threat and when you have tried to contact the IRS repeatedly to no avail.

The IRS Taxpayer Advocate will particularly help you if the IRS has failed to respond by the date promised. The Taxpayer Advocate is referring those taxpayers who are not “facing an imminent threat of enforcement action or otherwise experiencing situations that meet the definition of an economic burden” to “the appropriate IRS function specializing in return processing issues, rather than accepting the problem as a TAS case” (IRS.gov, “Taxpayer Advocate Service, Who We Are,” 8/28/2013).

It is important to note that the IRS Taxpayer Advocate will not handle all of your problems or attempt to resolve all of your difficulties. For the problems it will handle, you must have taken the necessary first steps for each given situation before attempting to request relief. 

For example, “before the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service will help, you must have made at least two inquiries into the status of your refund, and at least 90 days must have passed since you filed your tax return (or amended tax return)” (TaxAttorneyDaily.com, “Problems the Taxpayer Advocate Will Pursue,” 8/28/2013). 

Secondly, when you have not received a response to your inquiries, you must have contacted the IRS at least two times before. “At least 45 days must have passed since you made your first inquiry” (“Problems the Taxpayer Advocate Will Pursue”). 

In terms of IRS notice problems, you must have responded at least two times to an IRS notice “requesting some IRS action. And you must not have received any meaningful IRS response” (“Problems the Taxpayer Advocate Will Pursue”). These are the problems the Taxpayer Advocate will handle.

The problems the IRS Taxpayer Advocate will not handle include those where you have not “followed an IRS-established administrative procedure, such as requesting an appeal” (“Problems the Taxpayer Advocate Won’t Pursue”). In addition, if the problem has no direct correlation to your taxes, the IRS will not help you. For example, the IRS will not take your complaint about a particular IRS personnel member. 

The Taxpayer Advocate will not take your case if the problem cannot be solved by the IRS, if your case is under criminal investigation or if you are considered a tax protestor. 

Lastly, the Taxpayer Advocate will not take your case if your “position is that you cannot or will not pay your tax bill under any circumstances” (“Problems the Taxpayer Advocate Won’t Pursue”). To best understand what cases the IRS Taxpayer Advocate handle, consult your local center.

How to Get Free Taxpayer Assistance

It is my firmly held belief that everyone should have access to good, top quality legal representation. However, even by charging the absolute minimum that I can for legal services, there are some taxpayers for whom even my services are too costly. 

Although I take on and handle a significant amount of pro bono projects during the course of the year, I wanted to provide more information for those looking to get free taxpayer assistance and the ways to go about getting assistance. You can get help through a number of avenues, either through the Internal Revenue Service or other third parties.

The Taxpayer Advocate

First, it should be mentioned that the IRS has developed its own internal unit for helping taxpayers facing financial hardship. The Taxpayer Advocate Service is an independent group within the IRS that is dedicated to helping provide free taxpayer assistance. 

The Taxpayer Advocate is impartial and acts as an intermediary between the IRS and the taxpayer. Working on issues such as collections matters, the group also provides checks and balances to make sure that the IRS is following proper procedure. 

Free taxpayer assistance is also available for businesses, who can also qualify for Taxpayer Advocate assistance in certain circumstances. The Taxpayer Advocate typically operates regionally, but will also have several different units that handle specific taxpayer issues. 

Some units within the Taxpayer Advocate are focused on providing free taxpayer assistance while other units examine policy issues.

In addition to the Taxpayer Advocate, there are a number of specialized legal clinics which provide free taxpayer assistance. Usually these programs will operate or be associated with major regional law schools. For example, in San Diego where I live, the University of San Diego provides free taxpayer assistance through their legal clinics program. 

Participants or prospective clients will call the office to schedule a meeting with a student interviewer, who is supervised by an attorney. Generally, these programs are geared toward low income individuals and for those individuals who have amounts in controversy that do not exceed certain amounts. 

However, I have generally found that the quality of representation in these programs is terrific and the quality of representation is generally as good as representation by a newly-minted attorney. Information pertaining to clinics which offer free taxpayer assistance can be found in the Internal Revenue Service, Internal Revenue Manual, available at https://www.irs.gov/irm/part13/irm_13-001-020.html.

A list of free legal clinics is available on your local and state Bar Association website and through Volunteer Attorney programming. Local entities also offer neighborhood legal services and legal aid clinics. In addition, university law programs offer free legal aid. 

Consult your local websites and universities for more information. In general, qualifying for free legal aid is based upon a number of factors related to income, health status, safety, location and civil and/or criminal issues. The following sections provide insight into those categories that are specific to qualifying for legal aid.

Criminal Accusation

If you have been accused of a crime, you may qualify for legal aid. You may be eligible to receive legal services from a court-appointed attorney or public defender. A public defender is a type of lawyer who specializes in representing criminal defendants who are unable to retain fee-based legal services. The constitution guarantees the right of its citizenry to receive legal counsel in certain matters when their liberty is threatened.

Indigent Representation

If you are poor or needy, as defined by the appropriate court, you may qualify for indigent representation. “Under indigent representation, you may have to partially reimburse the court for the cost of legal services given to you” (HireALawyer.com, FindLaw.com, “Do You Qualify for Free Legal Aid? 9/4/2013). Qualifications for court-appointed representation are subject to local laws and vary also by state and different courts. 

For more information about indigent defense services, which include qualification criteria, refer to a state-by-state directory of public defender offices. The link to the website is available in the references section of this book.

Victim of Domestic Violence

Victims of domestic violence may qualify for free legal aid. Aid is usually available through community-based organizations that also help you gather evidence and file restraining orders. For more information regarding legal aid options available to victims of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Low-Income Considerations

If your income is considered below the current national average, you may qualify for free legal help. “Most legal aid clinics and pro bono attorneys (private attorneys offering free legal help) serve those whose household income is less than 125 percent of the federally recognized poverty level” (“Do You Qualify for Free Legal Aid?”) The exceptions to this rule are states such as Alaska and Hawaii. These states have a higher income eligibility threshold.

Disabled Veteran Status

If you are a disabled veteran, you may qualify for free IRS legal aid. Eligibility is based upon issues that may range from rental assistance to child visitation matters. To determine if you are eligible, contact your local veterans association. The association will help you to determine if you or a member of your household qualifies for a number of services and free legal aid.

Immigrant Eligibility

Most agencies and organizations offer free IRS legal aid services to immigrants and noncitizens that need help with visa applications, green cards, deportation proceedings, and work authorizations (“Do You Qualify for Free Legal Aid?”) Eligibility varies by local governing bodies, by state and by program. Contact your local and national immigration organizations for more information.

Civil Rights Issues

You may be eligible to receive free IRS legal aid if your issue falls under civil rights, or lack thereof. “Private attorneys, legal aid clinics and advocacy organizations with lawyers on staff often take on cases that fall within their particular area of interest” (“Do You Qualify for Free IRS Legal Aid”). 

For example, if your pay discrimination lawsuit has the potential of becoming a larger class-action lawsuit, then your case may qualify for free legal representation. Civil rights issues tend to encourage community and civic responsibility among legal professionals.

Community Organizations

Individuals and non-profit organizations seeking to improve their communities economically, culturally, socially and/or environmentally may qualify to receive reduced legal services as well as free legal assistance. “Community problems may include neighborhood deterioration, inadequate housing and homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, racial discord, and crime” (“Do You Qualify for Free Legal Aid”). 

Individuals and organizations interested in receiving legal services should check with their local community legal programs for information about eligibility and intake requirements.

Living With HIV/AIDS

Non-profit organizations whose mission is to provide community assistance to people living with HIV/AIDS often provide or refer clients to organizations that offer legal services. These types of organizations also provide help with estate planning, insurance difficulties, family law questions, employment and housing discrimination and other related legal issues (“Do You Qualify for Free IRS Legal Aid”). For more information about eligibility requirements, interested persons should contact their local and/or national HIV/AIDS prevention organizations.

Financial Assistance

If you currently receive financial assistance through SSI/SSP, Food Stamps program, county relief, Older Americans Act, and Developmentally Disabled Assistance Act, you may be eligible to receive free legal assistance. For more information about services available to you if you fall under one or more of these categories, contact your local legal aid organization.

Click here to learn more about IRS legal aid.

"Sam is a wonderful, results-oriented and extremely knowledgeable and talented attorney, who really has 'heart' in working on behalf of his clients, and explains options in a straightforward, respectful manner. He has assisted us with great outcomes which have added to our quality of life. I would not hesitate to recommend Sam for his services as he is an ethical, personable and expert attorney in his field. You will likely not be disappointed with Sam's work ethic, approach and his efforts."

-Aileen Dwight, Licensed Clinical Social Worker & Psychotherapist

Last updated: September 24, 2022

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Sam Brotman, JD, LLM, MBA

Owner and Director of Legal
Brotman Law

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