WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service today kicked off the 2009 tax filing season by announcing a number of new steps to help financially distressed taxpayers maximize their refunds and speed payments while providing additional help to people struggling to meet their tax obligations.

IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman encouraged taxpayers to take advantage of several new tax credits and deductions this filing season and announced a major enhancement to the Free File program that will allow nearly all taxpayers to e-file for free and accelerate their refunds. “With so many people facing financial difficulties, we want taxpayers to get all the tax credits they’re entitled to as quickly as they can,” Shulman said. “In addition, we are creating new protections to help people trying to meet their tax obligations. The IRS will do everything it can to help during these tough times.”

Help for People Who

Owe Taxes

With many people facing additional financial difficulties, the IRS is taking several additional steps to help people who owe back taxes. “We need to ensure that we balance our responsibility to enforce the law with the economic realities facing many American citizens today,” Shulman said. “We want to go the extra mile to help taxpayers, especially those who’ve done the right thing in the past and are facing unusual hardships.” On a wide range of situations, IRS employees have flexibility to work with struggling taxpayers to assist them with their situation. Depending on the circumstances, taxpayers in hardship situations may be able to adjust payments for back taxes, avoid defaulting on payment agreements or possibly defer collection action.

The IRS reminds taxpayers who are behind on tax payments and need assistance to contact the phone numbers listed on their IRS correspondence. There could be additional help available for these taxpayers facing unusual hardship situations.

Among the areas where the IRS can provide assistance:

    * Postponement of Collection Actions: IRS employees will have greater authority to suspend collection actions in certain hardship cases where taxpayers are unable to pay. This includes instances when the taxpayer has recently lost a job, is relying solely on Social Security or welfare income or is facing devastating illness or significant medical bills. If an individual has recently encountered this type of financial problem, IRS assistors may be able to suspend collection without documentation to minimize burden on the taxpayer.

• See TAX next column

•TAX forward

Added Flexibility for Missed Payments: The IRS is allowing more flexibility for previously compliant individuals in existing Installment Agreements who have difficulty making payments because of a job loss or other financial hardship. The IRS may allow a skipped payment or a reduced monthly payment amount without automatically suspending the Installment Agreement. Taxpayers in a difficult financial situation should contact the IRS.

 * Additional Review for Offers in Compromise on Home Values: An Offer in Compromise (OIC), an agreement between a taxpayer and the IRS that settles the taxpayer’s tax debt for less than the full amount owed, may be a viable option for taxpayers experiencing economic difficulties. However, the equity taxpayers have in real property can be a barrier to an OIC being accepted. With the uncertainty in the housing market, the IRS recognizes that the real-estate valuations used to assess ability to pay may not be accurate. So in instances where the accuracy of local real-estate valuations is in question or other unusual hardships exist, the IRS is creating a new second review of the information to determine if accepting an offer is appropriate.

* Prevention of Offer in Compromise Defaults: Taxpayers who are unable to meet the periodic payment terms of an accepted OIC will be able to contact the IRS office handling the offer for available options to help them avoid default.

    * Expedited Levy Releases: The IRS will speed the delivery of levy releases by easing requirements on taxpayers who request expedited levy releases for hardship reasons. Taxpayers seeking expedited releases for levies to an employer or bank should contact the IRS number shown on the notice of levy to discuss available options. When calling, taxpayers requesting a levy release due to hardship should be prepared to provide the IRS with the fax number of the bank or employer processing the levy. Taxpayers with financial problems who discover they can’t pay when they file their 2008 tax returns also have options available. IRS.gov has a list of What If? scenarios that deal with payment and other financial problems. These scenarios, in question-and-answer format, provide information on specific actions taxpayers can take. Taxpayers unable to pay in full can likewise contact the IRS to discuss additional options to pay.

E-File, E-Pay and

Direct Deposit

This year, electronic filing options will speed the payment of refunds to millions of taxpayers. Taxpayers who e-file and choose direct deposit for their refunds, for example, will get their refunds in as few as 10 days. That compares to approximately six weeks for people who file a paper return and get a traditional paper check.

This year, taxpayers can begin filing electronically on Jan. 16. The IRS in 2009 is again offering free tax preparation and filing through the Free File program. Anyone with an adjusted gross income up to $56,000 can use the standard Free File options this year –– that is approximately 98 million Americans.This year the IRS and its partners are offering a new option, Free File Fillable Tax Forms, that opens up Free File to virtually everyone, even those whose incomes exceed $56,000. Free File Fillable Tax Forms allows taxpayers to fill out and file their tax forms electronically, just as they would on paper. This option does not include an “interview” process like the other Free File offerings.