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Got tax questions? Don’t we all—here’s what to expect before your phone date with the IRS.

By Kristine Gill
April 01, 2021
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Say you have a question about your tax return, you need to sign up for a payment plan with the IRS for taxes you can't pay, or you're still waiting for your tax return check to come in the mail. You're probably wondering if it's OK to call the IRS, and what to expect when you do so. With tips from these experts, you'll be able to easily navigate what might otherwise be a customer service nightmare.

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Don’t call with tax FAQs or for help filing

First, let’s cover the situations in which it’s appropriate to call the IRS. You can dial them up any time you like, but who wants to get put on hold if your question can be answered somewhere else?

Start by talking with your tax accountant. You’re already paying this person to prepare your return, and they have all the documentation at their fingertips to answer questions about your personal situation. If you aren’t working with a CPA, software such as TurboTax typically offers a way to chat with a specialist or have your questions reviewed.

But if you think your question is best answered by someone with the IRS, be sure to visit their website before calling. Many questions can be easily answered through the website.

“The IRS has some interactive tools online you can try first,” says Alex Oware, a tax expert with JustAnswer, an expert-connection site.

A couple tips: Don’t call with questions about filing dates, or to get advice. That’s what your accountant and non-IRS tax professionals are for.

“The IRS usually doesn’t provide advice on the phone because they don’t want that risk,” Oware says.

And don’t call asking for updates on the status of your return. That info is easily found online through the refund status tool. In 2020 and 2021, the IRS has even established a portal for checking on your stimulus check status, so don’t call about that, either.

RELATED: The American Rescue Plan Means More Stimulus Checks Are on the Way, Along With More Aid for Families—Here’s What You Can Expect

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When should you call the IRS?

With so many warnings and caveats, you might be wondering when it is appropriate to call the IRS. The answer is  that you should call if you owe money but can’t pay, if you’re being audited, or if you’ve received correspondence asking you to do so.

“There are a number of reasons to call the IRS directly—you may have questions regarding your tax refund [or] around an existing installment agreement, or want to confirm your payment on an individual tax return was received,” says Colleen McCreary, chief people officer and financial advocate at Credit Karma. “Or, you may just want the location of an IRS office or of a free tax preparation service.”

If you need to establish a payment plan or apply for an offer for tax debt forgiveness, it’s best to make contact with someone at the IRS who can walk you through the process. If you’re being audited, you’ll want to touch base with someone at the agency to stay on top of the process. Your accountant or tax preparer can also assist here.

And if you’ve received correspondence from the IRS, you’ll want to call to see what’s going on. There’s a possibility unsolicited contact from the IRS is actually a scam, and the only way to be sure is to contact them directly.

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Be prepared to identify yourself and your accounts

When you’re ready to call, you’ll want to have some basic info and forms on hand to help the conversation go smoothly.

First, you’ll need to be able to identify yourself.

“I’m sure this sounds silly, but you’ll need to have your name, date of birth, and your social security number ready,” Oware says.

If you’re calling on behalf of someone else, say an elderly parent, you’ll need to have proof of power of attorney showing you have the permission and authority to do so before getting information about that individual’s account.

Once you’ve identified yourself, it’s down to the nitty gritty. You should have the following forms on hand in a pinch:

  • Your completed tax return
  • Your EIN or Tax Payer Identification number
  • Proof of past payments if you’ve made quarterly payments or put money toward a debt to the IRS

“The better prepared you are, the more efficient the phone call will be,” McCreary says.

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Expect high call volumes

Once you call, make yourself comfortable. Wait times this year are higher than ever.

“According to the IRS itself, IRS assistance by phone is extremely limited right now. During filing season, the IRS notes that phone service wait times can average 15 minutes or more,” McCreary says.

You can shorten your wait time by calling later in the week and early in the mornings, McCreary says. The IRS reports that Mondays and Tuesdays have the highest call volume and things get hectic after 10 a.m. You’ll also see an uptick in wait time around April 15 as everyone scrambles to file. (In 2021, you might expect longer waits around May 17, too, as that is the adjusted tax filing deadline.)

You can streamline your call by contacting the correct office off the bat, McCreary says. Some common departments include:

  • Individual tax help line: 800-829-1040
  • Businesses tax help line: 800-829-4933
  • U.S. Military (disaster or combat zone): 866-562-5227
  • Hearing impaired help line (TTY/TDD): 800-829-4059
  • To order tax forms: 800-829-3676
  • International Taxpayer Service Call Center: 267-941-1000 (6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern time)

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Avoid scams

It’s worth noting that tax scams spike this time of year. To avoid giving your personal info to a scammer by phone, or worse—paying something you don’t owe—be sure to always contact the IRS directly. And be wary of unsolicited contact from individuals claiming to be with the agency.

Ed Slott, “America’s IRA Expert” and author of the new book The New Retirement Savings Time Bomb warns that you should be wary of phone calls, emails, and text messages regarding your taxes.

“The IRS will never call you,” he says. “This is a huge scam and so many people get preyed on with these calls, especially around tax time. Hang up the phone if someone claims to be from the IRS.”

If you get an unsolicited email from the IRS, McCreary suggests forwarding the message to the IRS so they can investigate by sending a message to phishing@irs.gov. The IRS will only contact you via snail mail.

Slott adds that, in the off chance you’re audited, you’ll receive notice in the mail. In these letters, there might be an included phone number to call directly.

“The reason they might contact you is due to a large deduction or possibly income omitted from the tax return—or anything unusual that stands out,” he says.

“Another audit item might be a lifestyle audit where you show low income but live large: large real estate taxes and deductions that don’t mesh with your income,” he adds. “Foreign transactions and cryptocurrency are also a big item with IRS enforcement now.”