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Lessons From Virtual Settlement Days Could Help Future Events

Posted on June 1, 2020

The video conferencing tools used in virtual settlement day events will remain useful even when taxpayers, practitioners, and the IRS can return to holding in-person events.

“Virtual options represent an addition to traditional methods of communication and resolution, not a replacement,” IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told Tax Notes.

“Virtual settlement days represent a continuing effort by the IRS to deliver meaningful resolution options to taxpayers, especially during these difficult times,” Rettig said.

The essential function of settlement days held up well in an Atlanta session conducted online using WebEx software May 21 and 22, according to Eric Santos, executive director of the North Georgia Low Income Taxpayer Clinic, one of the participants in the event.

While there was a learning curve when switching from in-person settlement days to a virtual event, the experiment was successful overall, Santos said. The flexibility of video conferencing could still be a useful tool when in-person meetings are again possible, especially for places like Georgia with a large geographic area and a few dense population centers, he said.

The commitment to appearing in person can increase unrepresented taxpayers’ investment in the process, so settlement days probably won’t remain fully virtual after the pandemic, but hybrid events are a possibility, Santos said.

Settlement days are generally organized ahead of Tax Court calendar calls to give pro se petitioners access to free legal advice and the chance to resolve their tax disputes. Perhaps more importantly, the events — sometimes called pro bono days, settlement conference days, or other variations — allow petitioners to discuss their cases with the IRS in an environment well suited to tax advice.

In early May the IRS announced that settlement days would continue during the pandemic in a virtual format. The first two events were scheduled for Detroit and Atlanta.

Something Old, Something New

Santos said the IRS handled the invitations to the Atlanta settlement day as it normally does. The letters were sent to taxpayers approximately three weeks before the event, after three weeks of planning between the clinic and an IRS paralegal, he said.

Santos said he also notified several of his existing clients in advance of the event.

While in-person events are typically done in just one day, the planners started considering the multi-day format of the recent version early in the process, according to Santos. Another change for the work-from-home era was a switch to the middle of the week, rather than the weekend, he added.

Settlement days in Atlanta exhibited some of the early successes of planning in-person events on the weekend. After the taxpayers interested in participating responded, the IRS sent WebEx invites with both links and call-in numbers, Santos said. Some taxpayers lacked access to webcams, and so had to participate with only a telephone call, he added. Even though those sessions were a little harder for all participants, it was useful to have the workaround, he said.

“The IRS strives to assist every taxpayer, including many who do not have the ability to interact in a virtual environment," Rettig said.

For petitioners who were already LITC clients, all participants — the taxpayers, their representatives, the IRS attorneys, and a paralegal — started on the same video conference, according to Santos. The taxpayers and their attorneys then had an opportunity for a separate session, after which everyone reconvened, he said.

The logistics were smooth and the process straightforward, especially when the participants were able to take advantage of WebEx’s document sharing feature, Santos said. However, there was some difficulty when the IRS participants didn’t have access to physical files left in their now-closed offices, he added.

Unlike some recent efforts to expand the variety of IRS and volunteer functions involved in settlement days, the Atlanta event included only taxpayers, their representatives, IRS lawyers, and a paralegal, Santos said. Getting too many people into a video conference may have been awkward, he said.

“We welcome comments from taxpayers and others regarding additional methods by which the IRS can ease the burdens on people of our country facing tax issues as we move forward together," Rettig said.

And the Results Are In

Santos said seven petitioners participated in the May Atlanta event. While Atlanta has often seen much higher participation numbers, court delays, IRS enforcement suspensions, and a full in-person settlement day conducted earlier in the year probably reduced the pool of potential participants, he said.

While some of the participants’ cases were relatively early in the process, even those cases were substantially advanced during the event, and other, more advanced cases were settled at the event, according to Santos. Part of the reason he concluded that the virtual event still served the essential function of settlement days was because all cases made progress, and faster than they normally would have, he said. He offered the caveat that he didn’t participate in all seven meetings.

And even though no IRS revenue officers participated in the virtual event, some participants were still able to get same-day tax calculations, Santos said.

Santos said one other notable distinction between Atlanta’s most recent event and prior ones was the large proportion of petitioners who already had representation or were already clients of the LITC. That meant the participants were more prepared than usual once the meetings started, he said.

Settlement days often involve petitioners first meeting the tax practitioners who will help them at the event. In that case, they might not have discussed the documents they’ll need to present their cases, and the practitioners might not have been able to review the information yet.

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