The exterior of the IRS building in Washington, D.C.

The Internal Revenue Service reports that it gets more telephone calls the day after Presidents Day than on any other day of the year.  

But if you’re among those trying to reach the IRS, don’t hold your breath. The agency’s lack of funding, coupled with a shift in resources to handle the new tax law and backlogs caused by the monthlong government shutdown, means that many of those calls will go unanswered. 

A recent report by the Taxpayer Advocate Office, the IRS’ internal watchdog, highlights the logjams. In the first week of the 2019 tax season, for instance, callers routed to an IRS phone line dedicated to collections got through to a human 38 percent of the time, with an average wait of 48 minutes—more than twice the wait time of last year. Only 7 percent of callers needing help with a balance due or installment agreement have gotten through to an IRS staffer this tax season; the average wait time has been 81 minutes. 

More on Taxes

“As far as I know, we are answering calls,” says IRS spokesman Eric Smith. “But yes, people may very well encounter long wait times.”

Smith says the agency is devoting phone resources to situations in which taxpayers have received a notice from the IRS. Usually, the notice you receive includes a contact phone number that will direct you to a section of the IRS dedicated to your issue.

If You Really Want to Call the IRS

If you do call the IRS, be sure you have a concrete question for phone reps. To prevent tax fraud, the agency wants you to verify your identity. So have on hand your Social Security number, or a letter showing your Individual Taxpayer Identification Number if you don’t have a Social Security number; your filing status (single or married filing jointly, for instance); and your 2017 tax return.

If you’re calling about concerns related to a prior-year return, you’ll need to have the Social Security numbers and birth dates for those who were named on the tax return in question, a copy of that tax return, and any IRS letters or notices you’ve received.

“And make sure you actually need to call,” Smith says. “A lot can be handled other ways.” You can call as early as 7 a.m., and early morning can often be less busy, Smith says.

Alternatively, look for answers through the IRS website and other resources.

Find Online Help

• Check the IRS website. Smith says a major reason taxpayers call the agency is to ask about the status of their refund. For that, you can go to Where’s My Refund? on the IRS website (click Refund Status). The page is updated once every 24 hours. Backlog from the shutdown notwithstanding, the agency is still saying it will process most returns within 21 days, so wait about three weeks before you start checking.

The IRS website also has detailed information on numerous topics. And it has a variety of interactive worksheets and calculators on subjects such as whom you can claim as a dependent (the most asked question among individual taxpayers), which filing status to chooseeligibility for education credits, and even whether you need to file a tax return at all.

• Go to a free DIY tax forum. The do-it-yourself tax-prep software brand TurboTax hosts one. Taxpayers can ask questions and get answers—in some cases from tax experts, in other cases from seasoned DIYers. 

• Consult an expert within an online tax-prep program. Some free versions of online tax-prep products are now allowing you to access their tax experts—CPAs or enrolled agents. H&R Block offers such a service through its free online product; users can ask their questions via chat. 

Get In-Person Assistance

• Go to an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center. Speaking face-to-face with an IRS representative is possible but not simple. The agency has eliminated walk-in hours at its Taxpayer Assistance Centers. You’ll need to identify the closest office to you and call 844-545-5640 to make an appointment. Hours are typically 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. local time Monday through Friday but can vary by office.

So that you don’t waste your time at a Taxpayer Assistance Center that can’t handle your particular tax return or tax issue, check out IRS Publication 3676-B (PDF), which lists which tax topics the centers can and cannot help you with. You may have to pay a professional to handle items that aren’t on the “yes” list.

• Check out other free community-based help centers. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) are programs sponsored by the IRS and managed by trained local community volunteers. They can help individuals fill out their tax returns. (Some may be staffed, for instance, by accounting students from a local college, supervised by an accounting professor.) The TCE program is available for taxpayers 60 or older; most TCE services are operated by the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program