Tackling the Tax Code – How the IRS Communicates with Taxpayers

photo of a tax formThe tax code is complex, so taxpayers rely on the IRS to help them understand and follow the law. But the IRS publishes thousands of guidance documents a year, so where should taxpayers start? As we near the end of the tax year, today’s WatchBlog takes a closer look at how the IRS explains the tax code and taxpayers’ responsibilities.

Sorting through it all

The IRS informs taxpayers of changes in tax law through the Internal Revenue Bulletin—a weekly publication containing a variety of guidance materials, notices, and announcements.

Along with the Bulletin, the IRS issues and maintains several other “plain language” sources of tax law information for the public, including:

  • Forms, instructions, and publications for taxpayers to use in preparing their returns
  • News releases, fact sheets, and tax tips
  • Instructional audio and video presentations, and
  • Various other online tools and resources

And for more complicated tax questions or issues, taxpayers may seek private, binding rulings directly from the IRS.

All that tax information is great, but with so many resources it can be tough for taxpayers to separate the helpful hints from their legal tax responsibilities.

Hierarchy of Authority for IRS Guidance and Other Information Sources

Hierarchy of Authority for IRS Guidance and Other Information Sources

(Excerpted from GAO-16-720)

We recently reviewed how the IRS communicates tax law changes and responsibilities to the public, and how it decides what type of guidance to issue.

We found that—unlike most other federal agencies—the IRS considers the guidance issued in its weekly Bulletin to be legally binding. So, of all the guidance the IRS issues, the Bulletin is the authoritative source for tax law changes and responsibilities.

While the other non-Bulletin materials and resources may be useful to you as you complete your taxes, you can’t rely on them as authoritative resources. But how would you know that? To help taxpayers, we recommended that the IRS more clearly identify this limitation on its non-Bulletin materials and resources.

To read more about ways the IRS might increase taxpayers’ knowledge and confidence about the tax system, check out our full report.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact James R. McTigue, Jr. at mctiguej@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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