Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Lessons from the Tax Clinic


Lessons from the Tax Clinic
by Mark Garner
Chastek Library Reference Desk Assistant and Gonzaga University School of Law 3L/Law Grad December 2018 

[The following and all blog posts are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice]  

As the semester nears its end, and my academic career here at Gonzaga along with it, I have been thinking of the lessons I will take with me from the most impactful experiences I have had here. My two semesters with the Gonzaga University Legal Assistance Federal Tax Clinic have given me the most real-world, practical experience that I have received in law school.
In the Tax Clinic, students act as tax attorneys, supervised by licensed and practicing tax attorneys, to assist low-income taxpayers with their IRS conflicts. In this role, students do virtually everything licensed tax attorneys do. Students correspond with their clients and the IRS, negotiate settlements of tax debt, do tax law research, draft briefs and memoranda for court proceedings, and even represent clients at tax court.
                Through dealing with many clients from many backgrounds and circumstances, I feel there are several very basic pieces of advice that would have benefited my clients if they had been so advised long before they contacted the Tax Clinic. I share these lessons in hopes that it might lead some taxpayer to find a better, quicker resolution to their tax problems in the future.

#1: Don’t Ignore It 



Don’t put off dealing with your IRS problems. They do not magically go away on their own. In fact, they tend to get much, much worse the longer they are left unattended. They are also not just something to think about once per year in April.
I have helped several clients, and heard of many more, who refused to confront their tax issues as soon as they were aware of them and found themselves in a far worse situation than they otherwise would have been. These were not just irresponsible people running away from their problems. Often, they had very good reasons, such as the death of a spouse or other traumatic experience, extreme financial strain from loss of employment, injury, illness, or other struggle that left the client mentally and emotionally unable to deal with their tax issues.
However, as difficult as tax issues may be to deal with in the midst of a crisis, they won’t be any easier to deal with later. And often there are things that can be done to temporarily deal with the tax issue until after the crisis has passed, such as getting the IRS to place you in Currently Not Collectible (CNC) status until your financial situation improves. Long story short: I have not yet seen or heard of a tax issue that would not have been resolved more favorably for the client had they sought competent assistance from a tax professional at the first sign of trouble.
                In a similar vein, taxpayers should not be oblivious to their tax situation throughout the year. Some taxpayers are aware only of their responsibility to file their personal taxes on time by April 15th each year, but are unaware that they also have a responsibility to pay whatever tax they owe by that date, even if they have an extension to file. If you are self-employed, you should be aware of your responsibility to submit periodic, usually quarterly, income and self-employment tax payments to the IRS and possibly to any state in which you reside or earn income.
Also, a less common issue, but one that brings severe penalties and other consequences, is failure to submit trust account payments. Employment and income taxes are withheld from employee paychecks, income taxes are set aside from the company’s income, and these taxes are placed in trust accounts until the next periodic payment date.  If you are self-employed or do payroll or accounting work for your employer, you may be responsible for a trust account. If the trust account is mismanaged or the federal and state tax withholdings for income and employment taxes are not being properly withheld and remitted to the government, you could be personally liable for that money, plus severe penalties. And people don’t always realize they are the one responsible for the trust account.
So, think about your tax situation throughout the year, don’t ignore it. Be aware that changes in employment status (from employee to independent contractor or self-employed) can affect your tax filing and payment requirements. Be aware of your responsibilities for paying taxes, in any capacity, and ensure they are being paid. And don’t ignore a tax problem if one arises, no matter how difficult it may seem to deal with.

#2: Don’t Panic

Don’t panic if you receive a letter from the IRS. You have rights, and honestly, IRS agents are not as scary as you might think. Most IRS agents are quite nice, and are willing and able to help you get things figured out. They do not represent your or your best interests, but they can be helpful in getting the information you need and you should not put off dealing with your tax issue for fear of dealing with an IRS agent.
                When you receive a notice from the IRS regarding a tax deficiency, you have the right to have a Collection Due Process (CDP) hearing. This is your opportunity to explain and try to find a resolution to whatever tax issues the IRS raised in the notice. Your decision to exercise your right to a CDP hearing or waive that right carries consequences, so you should discuss the decision with a qualified tax law professional. But just know that you have the right to have your position heard before the IRS takes any collection action, and there is a time limit to how long that right is available.
Also keep in mind that the IRS generally has only three years to assess a tax liability against you for a given tax year, and ten years from the date of assessment to collect that debt. So, if you receive a notice regarding a debt on a tax year from two or three years ago, or you are still dealing with a tax issue from eight or nine years ago, remember that you have rights and may be able to get those debts written-off. Check with a qualified professional to know whether your situation fits the circumstances for a write-off.
Finally, remember that even if you have a legitimate tax debt, that does not mean you are going to jail or that the IRS will necessarily levy your bank accounts or repossess your car. You have several options for handling the collection of tax debt without leaving you bankrupt. And despite the popular misconception, there is no “tax prison” or “debtor’s prison” in the United States for failing to pay your taxes, unless you are engaged in criminal tax evasion.
If you have more monthly expenses than you have income, you may qualify for Currently Not Collectible (CNC) status. If the IRS places you in CNC status, it basically means they recognize you have insufficient income to pay your necessary expenses to live AND pay your tax debt. So, instead of forcing you to pay your tax debt, and then you end up on public assistance, they simply decide not to pursue collection activity on your debt until your financial situation improves.
If you have positive monthly cash flow, but not enough to pay off your tax debt for a long time, you may qualify to submit and Offer-in-Compromise (OIC). This allows you to pay less than your total tax liability, but usually requires you to pay money upfront. If you are able to make payments and those payments will pay off your tax debt within a reasonable amount of time, you can request an Installment Agreement (IA). There are fees to setup these arrangements and they will affect the IRS’s ten-year window for collection, so make sure you speak with a competent tax professional before pursuing these options.
Just keep in mind that you do have options for settling your tax debt. It should be taken seriously and not ignored, but don’t panic.

#3: Get Help 

Like this, but for taxes.
The federal tax laws are very complicated, and the state tax laws are generally no simpler. Public accountants are an obvious first choice for assistance if you can afford one. If not, you are not necessarily on your own. Seek out a Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic, such as the one at the Gonzaga University Legal Assistance Clinic. These clinics provide tax resolution services, generally at no cost to you. However, they can only assist with tax problems after they arise; they cannot prepare current year tax returns. Volunteer Tax Clinics, usually sponsored by a non-profit organization such as the United Way, may also be available at little or no cost and can assist with current year tax return preparation. These organizations can make a tremendous difference in the resolution of your tax matter, most importantly because they can inform and advise you on your rights as a taxpayer, and help you avoid tax problems in the first place.
                As a last resort, but a better option than trying to handle things on your own, is the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS). TAS is a division of the IRS that is separate and independent from the collection division. The mission of TAS is to ensure taxpayers have an advocate available to protect their rights and ensure timely resolution of tax matters. I have worked with several TAS agents and they have been competent and helpful advocates for my clients with the IRS. The contact information for TAS is on the IRS.gov website.
Whatever resource you use, make sure you seek competent assistance when dealing in the realm of tax law. I have seen too many times that simply trying to be honest and do the best you can to get your taxes done right on your own is often not enough to avoid serious trouble with the IRS. Honesty is crucial, but honesty without a knowledge of the constantly changing tax laws and regulations is how most people end up applying for assistance from the Tax Clinic.
Ideally, you will seek out tax assistance before the problem arises, even before it is time to prepare your tax returns. Tax professionals can help you plan for the future and make sure big changes, such as employment status changes, buying or selling a house or a business, or changes in family composition, don’t lead to an unexpected notice from the IRS in your mailbox.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Coping with Stress Triggers


Submitted by Sara Wilmot, 2L, Gonzaga University School of Law, Class of 2020

Camesha Little is Assistant Dean of Students at Gonzaga Law. While her responsibilities within the law school are expansive, she serves an essential role to the success and wellbeing of our students. Her dedication to support makes Dean Little the perfect person to help students identify and cope with the pressures of law school.

“Stress triggers are different for every student and they change as you make your way through law school,” said Little. For entering 1Ls, adjusting to the structure and process of law school is the first big hurdle. Undergraduate students are used to structure and feedback. “We strip all of that away, while simultaneously increasing the expectations,” said Little. For 1Ls, the key is conquering the unknown.

The 2L hurdle shifts to balancing your time. 2Ls are more involved in school actives like clubs, moot court and law review. Many are balancing internships along with class loads. “It’s a matter of juggling responsibilities with exhaustion,” said Little. “But it’s all possible!” 
3L year brings about the wonder of what life after law school will look like. The bar is looming. The financial pressures of student loan debt make finding a job essential. With the finish line in sight, 3Ls must make that final push.  

Students deal with external pressures of the outside world as well. “It can be difficult to keep and maintain relationships with people,” said Little. “We all have to balance our school lives with what happens outside of this building.”

Dean Little’s advice for managing it all? Perspective.
 “Remember your whys,” she said. “Why are you here? What are your goals? We often do more than we need to accomplish our goals.” Little emphasizes the importance of evaluating and assessing ourselves. “Check in with yourself, and ensure you’re heading where you want to go,” said Little. “Give yourself the grace to shift.”

Law and stress go hand in hand. Little’s advice is to practice responses to stress now. “Law school is different from legal practice, but regardless you’re always busy,” she said. So, treat law school as a training ground to practice your response and learn stress management.
If your 1L year is full of uncertainty Little suggests doing things to build your confidence. “If you’re worried about exams, do practice questions, use your tutors. Lean into the learning curve and do your best,” she added.

The 2L remedy is a little different. “Remember the end result is to be a lawyer,” said Little. Practicing law requires competency. “This means being physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually present for your client. So, you can’t spread yourself too thin,” she said. Little’s best tip? Learn to say no when you have too much on your 2L plate.

As the end approaches, the best advice for 3Ls is to be prepared. For the bar and the job hunt Little’s says start early. “Trust what you know about yourself. How you study, and where you want to work,” said Little. She also reminds 3Ls to appreciate their hard work as law school comes to an end. “It’s important to process the big moments in our lives,” she added.  

Regardless of where you are in your law school journey, Little reminds us to be kind to ourselves. “Give yourself permission to mess up. Don’t judge yourself. Realize you are human,” she said. “It’s okay to have big dreams. But be consistent in your practice and be consistent with yourself.”

Dean Little provided a list of student resources for a little extra help in coping with the pressures. All support groups are for GU students and free of charge.

There are several support groups including:

Adjusting to Life At GU
Aug. 28, Aug. 29, Aug. 30, Aug. 31 & Sept. 4 @ 12noon

Level Up Your Life: Gaming Group
Wednesdays | Sept. 19 - Nov. 28 @ 3:15p

Positive Psychology Workshop & Support Group
Tuesdays | Oct. 9 - Dec. 4 @ 12:15p

LGBTQ+ Support Group
Tuesdays | Oct. 16 - Dec. 4 @ 4:15p

Coping with Difficult People
*details coming soon*

Grief Support Group
*details coming soon*

Support for Students on the Autism Spectrum
*details coming soon*
All support groups are for GU Students and free of charge. Groups are led by a licensed staff therapist at Heath & Counseling Services.
All groups are held at 704 E. Sharp

Grief Support Group for GU Students
Gonzaga Health & Counseling Services’ Grief Support Group provides opportunities for learning and coping with the loss of a loved one. The group generally meets Tuesday 12:15 – 1:30. The group will meet at Health & Counseling Services, 704 E. Sharp. It is no cost and students can join anytime. Lunch will be provided. Visit https://gonzaga.campuslabs.com/engage/event/1760758 for more information.

Online Resources
Our online wellness toolbox is available to you with various resources whenever you think you might want or need it.https://www.gonzaga.edu/Student-Development/Wellbeing-Resources/Wellness-Toolbox.asp There is also a grief toolkit.

Health & Counseling Services
704 E. Sharp
509-313-4052
A full team of mental and physical health providers are available for one-on-one and small group counseling.  Students can walk in any time or make an appointment, Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm, Thursdays, 10am-5pm.

University Ministry
Hemmingson Center, 1st Floor, Suite 104
509-313-4242
The University Ministry team is available to meet with students, faculty, and staff to provide support, including spiritual and pastoral care.  This office is open Monday-Friday, 8:30am-5pm.

Center for Cura Personalis
729 E. Boone
509-313-2227
Case managers are available to meet with students to connect them resources, provide support, and assist in navigating challenges that arise.  This office is open Monday-Friday, 8am-4:30pm.

First Call for Help
509-838-4428
This resource is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to provide a supportive listener, immediate assistance for individuals in crisis, and connection to community resources.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

How Westlaw and LexisNexis can help on your next interview


Law students use online legal research services such as Westlaw or LexisNexis for research tasks at school and work. These resources make research fast and efficient but oftentimes students do not use the full range of services that these platforms offer. Tip: use an online legal research service to prepare for your next interview. While preparing for an interview is already stressful and time consuming, this research can be what sets you apart from other interviewees.

Use Westlaw or LexisNexis to research cases involving the attorney(s) conducting the interview. Take the time to read available briefs and resulting judicial opinions to have a general understanding of writing styles and legal arguments. This will give you ample discussion material for the interview. The interviewer will likely be impressed with your research and you will stand out as a strong candidate.

To access this information: 

On LexisNexis - Click on Litigation Profile Suite in the top left hand corner. Filter by attorney, state, city, and employer. 

On Westlaw - Click on Tools under Browse and find the Profiler link. Filter by attorney, state, city, employer, and practice area. 

While I generally use Westlaw for research, I prefer LexisNexis when using this feature! Try both to find your preference. 

If you need further assistance researching an employer, do not hesitate to reach out to a Westlaw or LexisNexis representative, Center for Professional Development staff member, or Chastek Library Reference Desk Assistant! 


Submitted by Holli Higgins, 2L Gonzaga University School of Law

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Zag Law Library News - September/October 2018


Click image to view newsletter


 




Judge Kavanaugh Confirmed

After a highly contentious confirmation process and a 50-48 vote, Judge Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as the 114th Supreme Court Justice for the United States Supreme Court on October 6, 2018.

He was sworn in later that day by Chief Justice Roberts and the Judicial Oath was administered by retiring Associate Justice Kennedy. 




Tuesday, September 18, 2018

CRS Reports Now Available Online

The Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, has announced that Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports are now available to the public online. CRS reports provide authoritative and confidential research and analysis for Congress' deliberative use.

To search CRS reports, visit https://crsreports.congress.gov/


To read more from Carla Hayden about CRS reports becoming widely available online, visit https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2018/09/trending-congressional-research-service-reports-now-available-online/