While the Internal Revenue Service has taken a number of actions to implement requirements of the Plain Writing Act, more needs to be done to ensure that letters and notices are understandable to taxpayers, according to a new government report.

The report, from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, pointed out that Congress enacted the Plain Writing Act of 2010 to enhance citizen access to government information and services by ensuring that government documents issued to the public are written clearly. Taxpayers who cannot understand the actions they are asked to take or the taxes assessed in IRS letters and notices may be unfairly burdened.

“The IRS mails more than 200 million letters and notices each year to individual and business taxpayers to help them understand and meet their tax obligations,” said TIGTA Inspector General J. Russell George in a statement. “Not only does it make good business sense, but the law requires clear government communications that the public can understand and use.”

The IRS has designated a senior official to oversee the agency’s implementation of the Plain Writing Act, trained employees on the Act, and developed a toolkit for use by employees, TIGTA found. However, the IRS encountered challenges in its effort to create a master list of all letters and notices it issues to taxpayers due to the high volume of documents issued and the multitude of different systems used to generate correspondence to taxpayers.

In addition, the process for reviewing letters and notices does not always ensure that these documents are written in plain language, the report noted. TIGTA’s evaluation of statistically valid samples of 18 letters and 38 notices that were revised or redesigned during fiscal year 2013 identified that nine of the letters (or 50 percent) and 25 of the notices (66 percent) are not clearly written and structured or do not provide sufficient information.

For example, Notice 3, IMF 2nd Balance Due Notice, informs taxpayers that the IRS can file a Notice of Federal Tax Lien on the taxpayer’s property. However, the notice does not adequately explain or define a Tax Lien.

TIGTA recommended that the IRS develop a process to identify the universe of letters and notices it sends to taxpayers, ensure that its technical writers have sufficient formal training on the Federal Plain Language Guidelines, ensure that the managers’ quality review process includes confirming the revised letter or notice is reviewed for plain writing, and develop a process to document corrective actions considered and taken to address its contractor’s recommendations.

The IRS agreed with three of TIGTA’s recommendations; however, it said that identifying its universe of letters and notices would require extensive work for a result that would provide limited value. TIGTA said it continues to believe that all letters and notices that the IRS sends to taxpayers are subject to the Plain Writing Act and the IRS must complete its master list of letters and notices.

The IRS defended the clarity of its written communications. “Providing clear communications to taxpayers is a top priority for the IRS, and our work to put information in plain language predates the 2010 law,” said the IRS in a statement emailed to Accounting Today. “To date, the IRS has rewritten nearly 80 percent of the 190 million notices sent annually to taxpayers. Our strong work in this area has been recognized by a leading plain language group. An important factor affecting IRS work in this area is the underlying complexity of the nation's tax law, which adds challenges to this process. The IRS generally agrees with the overall findings of the report, but there are some specific areas where we do not agree with the TIGTA analysis. For example, we disagree with one recommendation because it's not required under the Plain Writing Act and would provide limited value, which doesn't justify the use of limited staff and budget resources.”

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