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The IRS Is In Very Rough Shape

The Most Serious Problems Encountered by Taxpayers in 2021 Were Exacerbated by the COVID-19 Pandemic, But They Resulted From Longstanding Underfunding of the IRS

Processing and Refund Delays

The IRS has a backlog of 35 million tax returns as of 12/31/2021

Unprocessed returns as of 12/23/2021:

Return Type


Est Processing Time

​Form 1040 Individual Income Tax Return*


8 months

Form 1040-X Amended Tax Return


20 Weeks

Form 941 Employer Quarterly Return


Not disclosed

Form 941X Amended Employer Quarterly Return


Not disclosed

Other issues:

IRS recruitment, hiring, and training

The IRS has been severely understaffed due to complicated hiring processes, an aging workforce, and prior budget constraints. The NTA recommends that the IRS expedite hiring processes and develop training programs with the aid of outside accounting firms, law firms, and other large organizations.

This is an actual IRS routing road map

Telephone and in-person service

The IRS was only able to answer 11% of the calls received in 2021. The average wait time for calls was 23 minutes although through survey data tax practitioners reported wait times much longer with a low level of service and inexperienced representatives. The NTA recommends the implementation of callback technology with capacity across all telephone line departments that interact with taxpayers.

Transparency and clarity

With the increase in pandemic relief, the IRS saw an increase in traffic to its telephone lines and website. This increased traffic highlighted the IRS inability to provide timely and updated information to taxpayers. The IRS would often confuse and frustrate taxpayers by not providing the status of refunds and information on return processing. The NTA recommends that the IRS improve Where’s My Refund?, IRS2Go, and online accounts by providing specific information and in the cause of delay, the estimated date on refund issue, and further action to take by taxpayer.

Filing season delays

In addition to implementing pandemic safety measures while trying to continue operations, the IRS had a substantial backlog of inventory carried over from the prior filing season. The postponed filing season deadline probably caused more problems with taxpayers than the intended relief of an extended due date. The delay caused confusion and diminished taxpayers’ trust in the tax system. The delay increased the number of returns that needed manual processing due to IRS system issues. The NTA recommends that the IRS set a goal of replying to notices within 45 days of receipt.

Online accounts

IRS online accounts were designed to focus on payments and compliance as standalone portals with no links to perform more complex tasks. Online accounts also focus on individual taxpayers and the IRS does not provide robust online access for business taxpayers. For example, online accounts do not provide a mechanism with which a taxpayer could upload correspondence or chat with a representative. The NTA recommends that the IRS update accounts to give tax practitioners the ability to upload documents and request transcripts on behalf of clients.

Digital communications

The experience of the pandemic has taught the IRS the importance of enhancing a means to communicate digitally. In-person communication was a difficult means of communication with COVID-19 restrictions. Overall communication with the IRS seemed impossible with long wait times and lack of call-back technology. The digital communication currently offered to some taxpayers and tax professionals is limited and not allowed to everyone. The NTA recommends expanding these digital communication tools to ease the burden of relying on in-person telephone calls or meetings to resolve issues.

E-filing barriers

The IRS Modernized e-File (MeF) still does not accept some returns that are not compatible with its antiquated system. Millions of returns were rejected by the IRS’s software which added to the number of paper returns the IRS received during 2021. The NTA recommends that the IRS evaluate the need to reject returns and update its system to provide more approvals of electronically filed returns.

Correspondence audits

A large number of examinations conducted by the IRS are dependent on correspondence audit procedures. In a correspondence audit, a taxpayer receives computer-generated mail that the IRS believes can resolve the case with little or no human intervention. Data has shown that this method of correspondence audit has the highest volume of no-response rates.


The IRS fails to properly identify low-income taxpayers and present collection alternatives for financially struggling taxpayers. The NTA recommends the IRS defer collection activity for a short period of time while waiting on a taxpayer’s correspondence or amended returns being processed.

The IRS’s delays frequently result in various tax controversy issues that taxpayers may need Tax Controversy professional’s advice. Please contact the drafters of this tax alert if you require assistance with any of the issues outlined above.

The full report was prepared by the National taxpayer Advocate and delivered to Congress in December 2021:

Download PDF • 10.96MB

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