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IRS problem-solvers give taxpayers a break

As Ben Franklin put it so eloquently, taxes are one of life's few certainties. What is not certain is that you and the government will agree on how much you owe - or that the process will go without a hitch.

Granted, relatively few people hear a peep from the IRS after they've sent in their returns. But if you are one of the chosen, and the person assigned to your case can't answer your questions, where should you turn? If you're not ready to hire a professional advocate, the IRS offers you a number of outlets.The agency is billing its Problem-Solving Days as opportunities to address and solve individuals' longstanding issues. The first "open house" last November attracted 6,300 people to 33 regional IRS offices. District offices now promote similar events on a regular basis, often during weekend or evening hours. (To make an appointment at your district office, look up "Internal Revenue Service" in the business white pages, or call 800-829-1040.)

The issues handled at these events range from disputes over bills to questions about proper documentation.

Dan Hale drove to Houston, two hours from his home in Bridge City, Texas, to participate in the first Problem-Solving Day because of an unresolved audit letter he had received six months earlier.

Hale believed that the audit was in reference to early IRA withdrawals he had made. But in Houston he discovered that he had received the letter because the IRS had no record of his 1994 tax payment.

"I've got my credit union going back through my records to find the canceled check," says Hale, a mechanical specialist at Du Pont. "I've got to make a copy to prove that I paid."

Adding to Hale's frustration, the audit had tied up his 1996 refund of $800. The tax helpers in Houston didn't solve Hale's problem, but they did manage to explain the issue and give him a course of action to end the rigmarole.

You don't have to wait for an open house to get the IRS's ear, though. Each district has a taxpayer advocate and a problem-resolution office designed to provide assistance to taxpayers whose problems are not resolved through normal IRS channels.

You can also talk to someone in the office of the IRS's chief taxpayer advocate. Call 800-829-1040 to refer your problem either to your district advocate or to the national advocate's office.