In 2016 the IRS released its Future State vision, featuring seamless electronic interactions between the agency and taxpayers or their representatives. Progress towards this vision has been slow, as IRSAC noted in its 2018 and 2019 reports. (Les also wrote several posts on the Future State, its implications, and related developments.) Today the IRS remains far behind lenders, brokers and banks in the digital customer interactions it offers. While the IRS’s privacy concerns with electronic communications have not abated, faced with the coronavirus pandemic the agency adapted quickly, recognizing the need for digital communications if taxpayers’ matters are to progress as people shelter in place. In today’s post, guest blogger James Creech describes important new IRS parameters for email correspondence and electronic signatures. Christine
On March 27, 2020 as part of the IRS’s response to COVID-19 the IRS issued an internal memorandum temporarily modifying the existing prohibitions against the acceptance of electronic signatures and use of email to send and receive documents. For the Service these modifications were a necessary adjustment to the realities of remote work. It allows many of the cases in progress prior to the People First Initiative to continue to move forward even if it is just to avoid a statute of limitations expiring. It is also an acceptance that many taxpayers who must interact with IRS employees are sheltering in place and may lack access to any technology beyond a smartphone. It is interesting to note that the memorandum does not specify an end date for these temporary procedures unlike many of the other aspects of COVID-19 that expire on July 15, 2020.
The most important part of the IRS accepting electronic signatures is not how they accept them but rather what types of documents have been approved for electronic signatures. Electronic signatures are temporarily permitted on documents required to extend a statute of limitations or to close an agreed upon matter such as Forms 870 and 872. Beyond those forms, the memorandum only lists a few specific forms by number but it appears that it should be interpreted broadly. As a catch all, it states that long as the form is not normally subject to standard filing procedures, ie a 1040x or 8832, an electronic signature is permitted and the document can be submitted electronically. An IRS employee can request further guidance from their internal policy office on the specific email acceptance policy. Given that the internal guidance is vague it might be incumbent on a practitioner to remind an IRS employee that this option is available should there be some hesitation about accepting particular form.
One other routine document specifically listed by the memorandum is a power of attorney. On the surface the inclusion of the 2848 seems of limited utility. The CAF units are located in service centers that are currently closed, new matters are not being assigned to the field, and adding a power of attorney midway through working through an issue with a Revenue Agent is relatively rare. However for tax clinics and taxpayers who need to either add or change a representative mid stream specifically stating a power of attorney can be filed with an electronic signature is a useful inclusion.
If a document is eligible for an original electronic signature, the signature itself can be submitted in a number of widely used file formats including pdf and jpeg file types.
The real value for practitioners in the modification is the ability to send in photographs of a signature, or to have a client electronically sign a document on smartphone without the need to print the document at all, and still have it accepted by the IRS. Without this ability many taxpayers could potentially have to either have to physically meet their representative in order to sign a document, or worse yet many pro se taxpayers could be unable to meaningfully participate in moving cases forward because they lack access to a printer or a scanner.
The IRS now allows employees to both send and receive emails, including emails with attachments. For practitioners receiving emails the procedures are similar to receiving a physical copy of information from the IRS. The attachment is sent as a standalone email in an encrypted SecureZip. The 12 character password is then relayed to the practitioner over the phone, or by some other means than email, and the attachment can then be opened.
Sending documents to the IRS is a little more complicated. In order to protect the IRS, incoming email is not being accepted without an established relationship between the taxpayer or their representative. The IRS employee must also first request that the documents be sent through the normal e-fax channels prior to offering the use of email.
If the taxpayer is unable to send an e-fax or wishes to use email the employee must still take steps to dissuade them from doing so. They must advise the taxpayer that email is not secure. They must request that all attachments should be encrypted to the best of the taxpayer’s ability and baring that any information must be in a valid format. Links to files in the cloud are not accepted. Finally they should advise the body and subject line of the email must not contain any sensitive or identifying information. All of these steps are perfectly reasonable for security purposes but may be intimidating to some taxpayers.
If the taxpayer is sending a document that contains an electronic signature the taxpayer must attest to the signature by including a statement similar to “The attached [name of document] includes [name of taxpayer]’s valid signature and the taxpayer intends to transmit the attached document to the IRS.” It is worth noting that if there are technical issues with the .gov email address, IRS employees are prohibited from using personal email addresses as a back up.
Part of the reluctance on behalf of the Service to accept emailed documents in the past has been a well-founded worry about introducing viruses into a secure system. From the IRS’s point of view requiring a known taxpayer to opt in to email, and follow the required procedures and formats, should greatly reduce this risk.
Email for the practitioner has its own set of privacy concerns. From a technical perspective sending an email to the IRS is no different than an e-fax. E-faxes are routed to IRS employees’ email addresses so the only difference is the terms of service for the e-fax vs the email provider.
Slightly different is what happens to the data once it is on a laptop in the IRS employee’s home. Fortunately for taxpayers the IRS has a robust set of data privacy protections that can be found in Section 6103. Generally speaking the IRS has done a good job of training employees on the importance of Section 6103. Without going into much detail, Section 6103 prohibits the disclosure or inspection of sensitive taxpayer information by anyone who is not authorized to view the material. The punishment for violations of Section 6103 can range from potential criminal charges for willful disclosures to administrative sanctions, including termination, for less serious breaches. Violations of Section 6103 also give taxpayers a right to a civil cause of action against the United States under IRC Section 7431.
Section 7431 was given additional teeth in the Taxpayer First Act of 2019 that is especially relevant right now given that all IRS employees are working remotely. Even though the IRS has safeguards in place to protect taxpayer information, such as requiring that laptops containing sensitive data are encrypted, accidents do happen.
Prior to the Taxpayer First Act taxpayers were only notified of a Section 6103 disclosure violation if the violation resulted in criminal charges. This left many taxpayers in the dark if return information was disclosed in a non willful manner. The Taxpayer First Act significantly broadened this disclosure to impacted taxpayers, including when IRS “proposes an administrative determination as to disciplinary or adverse action against an employee arising from the employee’s unauthorized inspection or disclosure of the taxpayer’s return or return information” and it requires that the IRS affirmatively inform taxpayers of the civil cause of action against the government. It remains to be seen whether there will be an uptick in Section 6103 violations but if expanded use of email does not trigger a wave of taxpayer notifications, then privacy may not be such a barrier to making this modification permanent.
While the limited acceptance of electronic signatures and use of email was expanded to benefit IRS employees during this difficult time, it is impossible to see this as anything but beneficial for taxpayers. Even with the required hurdles it makes engagement with the IRS easier, quicker, and more approachable to anyone who does not have a scanner and an e-fax service.