IRS to launch voluntary program for tax preparers

The IRS announced Thursday that it was launching a voluntary education program for unregulated tax preparers, as the agency tries to ensure taxpayers get adequate help next filing season.

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Tax preparers who want to take part in the program, which the IRS says will be in place for the 2015 filing season, would take 18 hours' worth of classes, including 10 hours on federal tax law.

The IRS’s decision to ramp up the voluntary program comes months after a federal court said the agency didn’t have the legal authority to move forward with its plans for mandatory education requirements for preparers.

John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, said Thursday that the program would help taxpayers steer clear of incompetent or unscrupulous tax preparers, even as he said the voluntary program wasn't ideal.

“About 60 percent of paid tax return preparers in the U.S. operate without regulation or oversight,” Koskinen told reporters. “Although many of them do a good job, we have found that others are poorly equipped to assist taxpayers in preparing returns.”

Preparers who complete the requirements will be placed in a database that allows taxpayers to find qualified help. Tax professionals with even more qualifications, like certified public accountants, would also be in the database.

At the same time, Koskinen said he would continue to urge lawmakers to pass a measure – like one found in President Obama’s most recent budget – giving the agency explicit authority to regulate tax preparers.

Koskinen said he hadn’t found any lawmakers in either party that opposed the plan, and expressed confidence that Congress would pass a measure at some point.

But with the agency still in the midst of its targeting controversy, GOP lawmakers have also shown no real interest in taking on the tax preparer issue, and even Koskinen acknowledged that the gridlock on Capitol Hill could make it difficult for a bill to pass this year.

“It’s always hard, especially in election seasons, to know what’s going to get done or when,” Koskinen said.

The IRS also faces opposition from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, or the AICPA, which said this week that the agency could be seen as trying to supplant the federal court decision.

“We believe the proposed program is unlawful and improper,” AICPA officials said this week. “We have sought to work with the IRS to achieve workable solutions to regulate tax return preparers and protect the public, and we stand ready to continue these efforts.”

The agency did get support from H&R Block, which said that “implementing minimum competency standards for tax return preparers is the right thing to do to best serve and protect consumers.”