Don’t call the IRS this tax season

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailNeed to call the IRS with a question? Good luck with that. The IRS ombudsman tells us about half of taxpayers who call the agency this tax season won’t get through, and the average hold times could be 30 minutes or more.

In a report to Congress, the Taxpayer Advocate Service blamed the widening gap between the IRS’ workload and its shrinking resources (read: budget cuts) for “unacceptably low levels” of customer service.

You have some free alternatives if you need help filing your returns:

In addition, TurboTax and TaxAct offer free preparation of the simplest federal returns, but you pay to file state and more complicated returns.

The software programs do a good job of guiding most people through the preparation and filing process. If your tax situation is at all complex–you own a business, are an active investor or experienced a major life change, for example–consider hiring a tax pro. Enrolled agents are a good, lower-cost choice for most people, while CPAs offer more high-end help.

Zombie debt and the Supreme Court

This may be a first: I’ve been cited to the Supreme Court.

Specifically, a column I wrote back in 2006 about “zombie debt” was cited in a brief filed by AARP, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Association of Consumer Advocates and other good folks for a case known as Marx v. General Revenue Corp. The case is about whether someone who lost a lawsuit against a collector can be forced to pay damages if the lawsuit wasn’t filed “in bad faith and for purposes of harrassment.”

Olivea Marx sued debt collector General Revenue Corporation after it contacted her employer to find out about her employment status. Marx believed that General Revenue’s action violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. She lost, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled she had to pay more than $4,500 to cover the collector’s legal costs.

The Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also have weighed in against the decision, saying it was inconsistent with the FDCPA, which says people who lose cases against collectors must pay defendants’ litigation costs only if the consumers sued in bad faith or for purposes of harassment.

Collectors complain about frivolous lawsuits. Consumer advocates counter that more lawsuits would be filed if people truly understood their rights. The AARP/CFA brief notes that there isn’t much regulatory enforcement of fair debt collection practices laws, which leaves private action in the form of lawsuits brought by consumers. Debt collection already tops the list of industries that draw FTC consumer complaints; imagine how much bolder collectors might be if they could win damages against anyone who sued them and lost.

 

Beware your financial planner

Financial planner Allan Roth has a pretty good piece in the latest issue of AARP the Magazine on “The Two Faces of Your Financial Planner” (renamed “How to Choose Your Financial Planner,” a much snoozier headline, in the online version). Although it’s geared for older readers, it should be read by anyone who gets professional advice. The piece discusses the inherit conflicts of interest with every method of compensation, from commissions to assets under management to hourly, and points out that the people you trust with your money may not be worthy of that trust:

My point is this: Bad advice is epidemic in my industry, and it doesn’t come only from villainous fraudsters such as [Bernie] Madoff. It also comes from pleasant, empathetic folks who are merely responding predictably to my industry’s perverse incentives and self-serving ethical standards.

We financial planners are masters at persuading ourselves that what’s in our best interest also happens to be the moral thing to do. By and large, we’re good people, which is why we can be so convincing — and so potentially dangerous to your money.

The conflicts inherent in a commission-based model are pretty apparent. If a planner gets a big payday when you buy a specific investment, but less of a payday or none at all if you buy another, that’s a pretty good incentive to rationalize putting you in the investment that will do the most good for him or her.

There are also conflicts that come with the hourly model (the potential to run up the bill) and the assets-under-management model, although I don’t quite agree with the example Roth uses: “That’s why few of us will ever tell you to pay off your mortgage: Using $100,000 to discharge a loan rather than investing it could cost us $1,000 a year in fees.” Actually, the reason fee-0nly planners typically don’t recommend mortgage prepayment is that most people have much better things to do with their money than pay off a low-rate, tax deductible loan–things like catching up on their retirement savings, paying down every other debt and making sure they’re adequately insured, among others.

The article offers some excellent advice for how to get the best money advice, including checking credentials, refusing to commit to a plan or investment on the first meeting, asking what the penalties are if you want your money back from an investment and requesting the planner to put in writing why he or she thinks an investment is suitable and the total cost you’ll be paying.