Low Income Taxypayer Clinic

Every day tax attorneys are making a difference in the lives of low-income people struggling to live in the Bay Area by volunteering with the Justice & Diversity Center (JDC) of the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Low Income Taxpayer Clinic. Whom are they helping? A monolingual Spanish speaker who receives an IRS letter threatening to seize her assets who cannot read or comprehend the letter; A woman suffering from Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, whose only source of income is Social Security Disability Insurance, and who receives an IRS notice proposing to assess $4,000 for unreported income; A single parent working a minimum-wage job in the Bay Area, struggling to pay rent, whose $5,000 tax refund is withheld by the IRS due to an audit of her tax return. Each of those people was assisted by a volunteer attorney from JDC’s Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC). Thanks to those attorneys, one settled her liability for $100, and the other two received refunds.

The JDC’s LITC is one of 140 LITCs in 49 states and the District of Columbia, but one of only six clinics that primarily relies on a volunteer panel of tax professionals to represent its clients. LITCs are independent from the IRS but receive some of their funding from the IRS through the LITC grant program. Each clinic screens prospective clients to confirm that they meet income guidelines and other criteria before agreeing to represent them. In 2015 LITCs throughout the country represented 18,751 taxpayers, obtained $4.3 million dollars in cash refunds, and eliminated $65.4 million in tax liabilities. Additionally, LITC’s held over 3,000 events to educate more than 78,000 low-income and ESL taxpayers.[1]

It is not just taxpayers with complex financial profiles such as business owners or higher net worth individuals who worry about IRS audits. As a household’s adjusted gross income approaches zero, its likelihood of an audit actually increases. Low-income households are often eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Due to the high frequency of fraud associated with the EITC, those households are subject to an audit rate of 1.7% versus 0.6% for all other households.[2] Low-income taxpayers’ abilities to access assistance are compounded by persistent cuts to the IRS’s budget. Congress has slashed the IRS’s budget by 17% -since 2010 (adjusting for inflation), resulting in a 14% reduction in its workforce.[3] These cuts affect low-income taxpayers disproportionately as they are more likely to need personal assistance to comply with their tax obligations. Also, the issues most commonly audited on low-income taxpayers’ returns are likely to be conducted through correspondence audits. The IRS has consistently failed to respond in a timely matter to significant amounts of correspondence in recent years due to inadequate funding.[4] If taxpayers are unable to resolve their issues administratively, often their only option is to file a petition in the United States Tax Court. Petitions filed by self-represented petitioners account for more than 70% of all U.S. Tax Court petitions.{5]

The need for qualified legal representation for low-income taxpayers in the Bay Area is only growing as budget cuts hamstring the IRS and the cost of living in California skyrockets. The JDC LITC provides pro bono legal representation to low-income taxpayers in controversy with the IRS throughout Northern California. Its panel of volunteer attorneys, certified public accounts and enrolled agents provides full-scope representation to its clients in collection matters, exams, and other controversy actions, and represents petitioners in the United States Tax Court. The JDC pre-screens all matters and cases, and provides malpractice insurance to all volunteers. Additionally, its volunteers assist at all United States Tax Court calendar calls in San Francisco, providing limited-scope advice and assistance to self-represented petitioners.
Volunteering with the JDC LITC is a great opportunity to gain pro bono experience, become more involved in individual cases and represent clients. For experienced professionals, the Clinic provides a way to help someone in need. For more information please email probono@sfbar.org.


Matthew Miller is the Director and Supervising Attorney at the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic at the Justice & Diversity Center of the Bar Association of San Francisco. He has a decade of experience in tax controversy in both private practice and in legal services, from complex disputes with the Internal Revenue Service to matters involving state and local taxing jurisdictions. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Bay Area Young Tax Lawyers, a standing committee of the Taxation Section of the State Bar of California.

[1] Publication 5066, Program Report, January 2017, https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p5066.pdf, Accessed 2 August 2017.
[2] Greenberg, Scott. The IRS Audited 1.2 Million Households in 2015. Tax Foundation, 31 March 2016, https://taxfoundation.org/irs-audited-12-million-households-2015/. Accessed 2 August 2017.
[3] Marr, Chuck & Murray, Cecile. IRS Funding Cuts Compromise Taxpayer Service and Weaken Enforcement. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 6 April 2016, https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-tax/irs-funding-cuts-compromise-taxpayer-service-and-weaken-enforcement#_ftnref13, Accessed 2 August 2017.
[4] Marr, 6 April 2016 (citing “Internal Revenue Service: Observations on IRS’s Operations, Planning, and Resources,” February 27, 2015, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/668769.pdf), Accessed 2 August 2017.
[5] Publication 5066, Program Report, January 2017, https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p5066.pdf, (citing The United States Tax Court and Calendar Call Programs, Panuthos, Hon. Peter J. 68 Tax Law, 439, 440 (Spring 2015), Accessed 2 August 2017.

Filed Under: Pro Bono

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