By William R. Stromsem, JD, CPA
On Aug. 1, the IRS will start a pilot program to provide virtual appeals conferences as an alternative to telephone and face-to-face conferences (IR-2017-122). This has great potential to help Texas CPAs and might also cause some possible problems.
The IRS plans to use a web-based screen-sharing application similar to online meeting programs that are commercially available for home computers and smart phones. The IRS says the application will have more tools than the current video conference alternative that is only available in a few IRS offices and that would likely be replaced by the virtual appeals application.
The virtual appeals conference alternative would save travel time and expense in large states like Texas where the nearest IRS Appeals office might be hundreds of miles away and would be preferable to a telephone conference in those situations. However, with cuts to the IRS budget and Appeals personnel, the availability of virtual appeals may tempt the IRS to further curtail face-to-face appeals, which are often more effective in resolving issues. There are also several unresolved issues that will have to be considered.
The IRS is touting this as a “virtual face-to-face option.” This terminology seems to assume that there is no substantive difference between a virtual conference and a real face-to-face conference. IRS Appeals Chief Donna Hansberry seems to blur this distinction in saying that “Taxpayers who choose the web-based option will be able to get face-to-face service remotely.” While the virtual conference may be preferable to a telephone conference, it may be a poor substitute for an in-person conference where papers can easily be passed back and forth and discussed, and where each side can evaluate body language and other subtleties that might not appear on a camera to tell how their points are being received.
The IRS will have to clarify some issues, such as: can the IRS or the taxpayer record the proceeding and possibly use the recording in a judicial appeal; who controls the camera; will it just provide head shots or will there be some ability to sense body language; and if remote settlement officers participate in appeals calls with a taxpayer’s local IRS representative, will that possibly override and diminish the authority of the local appeals officer?
TSCPA’s Federal Tax Policy Committee has actively commented on its concerns about substituting virtual services for live services, and will continue to advocate on your behalf in making these services as effective as possible and in preserving the taxpayer’s ability to have face-to-face conferences. See links to past letters to the IRS.