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Tax Litigation

While most taxpayers do not experience difficulties with tax issues or resolve their problems at an early stage, individuals with continuing tax disputes may choose to resolve their claims against the Internal Revenue Service in federal court. Taxpayers can bring tax litigation in one of three federal courts that operate independently of the IRS. Depending on the case, the Claims Court, District Court or Tax Court may provide the appropriate forum. The taxpayer may choose to bring his or her dispute in these courts prior to completing the IRS internal appeals process, but some judges will not hear a case that has not been through this administrative procedure. Additionally, a tax court judge may fine a taxpayer if he or she feels that the lawsuit was brought to delay tax payment.

The US Court of Federal Claims deals with disputes over taxes already paid. After a taxpayer makes payment, he or she may file a suit in federal claims court for a refund of the disputed amount. The refund may represent any amount however small, but the taxpayer cannot seek refund of certain IRS penalty payments.

The US District Court also requires that the taxpayer pay the disputed amount prior to bringing suit. Additionally, the taxpayer must request the refund from the IRS before commencing district court litigation. The IRS must either deny the refund or delay for over six months before the taxpayer can begin his or her District Court action. In the District Court, the taxpayer receives the right to a trial by jury, a feature not available in the Federal Claims or Tax Court. As in Federal Claims Court, District Court sets no minimum amount for tax disputes that may be heard, but litigation costs may limit district court actions to larger claims.

Unlike Claims Court and the District Court, the US Tax Court hears only tax-related cases. The taxpayer need not pay the disputed amount prior to commencing a Tax Court case. A tax judge hears the case and makes a decision on the taxpayer's case. Because the taxpayer does not pay the disputed tax prior to suit, he or she must file a Tax Court case quickly: The taxpayer must file within 90 days of the IRS mailing a notice of deficiency to the taxpayer. Because the taxpayer is not required to pay taxes prior to trial, Tax Court is the most popular tax litigation option.

Taxpayers can resolve smaller disputes through the Tax Court's small-tax case procedure, but the judge's decision in such cases is final with no right of appeal. In all cases, taxpayers should involve competent legal help from tax attorneys with experience representing clients before the federal courts.

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