So I’m on the golf course trying to improve my golf swing. I walk over to the sand trap and practice hitting balls onto the green. After about 30 minutes I start hitting the green regularly. I start thinking I’m a lot better than what I really am.  I get a little cocky.

A few minutes later I spot Steve Haskins, a former touring pro, practicing as well. I challenged him to a contest.  We bet the price of ice tea for who can get closest to the hole out of the sand trap – best out of three balls.

Steve steps up and hits two into the hole. That’s right , his first two swings put the ball in the hole. The third one hits the pin and hangs up on the lip of the cup.

I am out of my league.

I gladly paid for his ice tea and his advice about how to improve my game.

One of the most frustrating things that I have endured over the last 38 years of  federal tax practice has been helping clients who have had  previous tax representatives  who had no idea what they were doing. Those representatives were cocky and tried to handle cases that were beyond their areas of expertise. So today I want to talk about that danger and how you can help yourself.

  1. Innocent spouse

Many of us think we know what an innocent spouse is. But the reality is it’s a term of art, a legal term. It is not simply a release of liability for a spouse who didn’t know, it is much more complicated than that. There are multiple statutes that impact innocent spouse treatment. The statutes are not simple, they are complicated. If you have an innocent spouse case do not rely on an 800 number, an enrolled agent, or an accountant. This is something that should best be handled by a federal tax lawyer who has experience litigating these cases.

  1. IRS Administrative Practice

In the past, the Collection Division was an independent part of the IRS and answered basically to no one. Congress changed the law so that the collection division answers to the IRS appeals division, IRS attorneys, and to the US Tax Court. Congress also created a number of Taxpayer rights, all of which can be waived if improperly handled.

If you have an issue before the IRS, it is absolutely essential that your representative be thoroughly familiar with the legal and administrative rules that govern your proceedings. Far too often I have new clients who have been poorly represented by tax advisers who were in over their head. Frequently these new clients have lost their taxpayer rights and missed significant portions of their administrative processes. These are critical issues and can significantly impact your chances of prevailing or obtaining an acceptable resolution.

Again for emphasis. If you have any issue with the IRS, it is essential that you retain the services of someone who is educated, experienced, and competent in this very narrow area of federal tax law from the outset.

  1. Payroll taxes

If your business owes payroll taxes, there is significant liability not just for that business but also for all of the individuals who were involved in running the business when the payroll taxes were not paid. The IRS will interview them, request documents and impose significant penalties.  Again, this is a complicated legal issue best handled by someone well versed in tax law and in IRS administrative procedures.Don’t go it alone or with an unqualified representative.

Folks, I made a fool out of myself challenging a pro to a contest on the golf course which was far beyond what my skill level was. However the embarrassment was short-lived as he was kind enough to help me get even better.

If you have a problem with the IRS, don’t make the mistake of hiring somebody who thinks they know more than they do.  Make sure that you research that person carefully that they have the knowledge experience and education to represent you adequately. Do not rely on somebody who makes slick representations about likely results which could never be obtained.

There is just too much at stake.