"Dear IRS…"

By Andrew Tobias

Dear IRSI got my 1989 taxes in right on time. But a few weeks after I filed, I got a note from the Internal Revenue Service. It was a nice note, as these things go. The IRS computer has definitely been through charm school in recent years. But it said that "as a result of an error we have corrected on Schedule E of your return, you owe IRS…[an arm and a leg]."

Well, actually it was more like a thumb. But since I had done my return with one of those computer software packages that promise no mistakes (and because my name and face were ON that package), I was curious to know just what the error was. Off I shot a scathing - well, actually a meek - letter of inquiry.

June 25 - Back came a letter from Glynda F. Hankins, chief of the IRS taxpayer-assistance section, over whose signature I would guess ten billion such letters go out each year. It told me the IRS was looking into my inquiry and would get back to me within 30 days. I was impressed.

August 17 - The promised response. Thanking me again for my inquiry, it continued: "We received a return from you on April 15; however, it is not immediately available. Please send us a newly signed copy."

August 23 - Before I could whip off a 30-page return, I got yet another nice letter from Hankins, this one informing me that "the information you requested is enclosed." Except it was not. Enclosed instead were a copy of the basic "who must file" instructions and a photocopy of a death certificate for a man named Clyde Majors, who had died in 1988 of "myocardial infarction due to a ruptured esophagus." ("WARNING:" read the bottom of the death certificate the IRS had photocopied for me, "Any reproduction of this document is prohibited by law.")

"I am sympathetic to the enormous task the IRS is charged with," I wrote back, "but it is hard for me to understand what Mr. Majors' esophagus might have to do with the error on my return." I explained that, lest this turn into a nightmare in which I awake one day to find my home being loaded onto a truck, I was enclosing the disputed amount - but that I'd still appreciate knowing what the error was. I knew that if I turned out not to owe the money, I'd eventually get it back.

September 26 - A letter arrived, acknowledging my letter and promising a response within 30 days. Like all the others, this one closed with, "We apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused you and thank you for your cooperation. Sincerely yours, Glynda F. Hankins." And I must say, even thought it as a form letter, that kind of touch makes a difference.

November 2 - "The information you requested is enclosed. Sincerely yours, Glynda F. Hankins." But enclosed was only a blank 1989 Schedule E. Nothing else.

"I already have plenty of blank tax forms," I wrote back. "But at your convenience…"


January 29 - Ta-Dah! Here was a copy of my schedule E, which someone had marked in red that shows lines 32 and 33 didn't add up to 34. Bingo! It hadn't even occurred to me to look for that kind of error, for if there's one thing a computer can do, it's add. As it happens, my return WAS correct - the numbers only appeared to not add up. (Included in line 34 were numbers from a supplemental schedule that wouldn't fit on the main form. When I pointed out the IRS's mistake, they sent my money back.)

Points to be made:

1 - Don't ever assume the IRS is always right. It's not. According to a study, it's telephone advice is correct about 91 percent of the time.

2 - Don't even think about inviting Glynda Hankins to lunch. She is very, very busy.