Although most Americans have not felt the impact of the recent government shutdown, now closing in on three weeks in length and making it the second longest shutdown in US history, this impact may soon change as tax filing season is less than a month away.   With the recent partial shutdown “non-essential government workers” have been told to not come into work.   This “stay home” request includes employees at the IRS – as many as 85% of the employees of that government agency!   If you have tried to reach a live person at any of the IRS customer service lines, you will be greeted with a message informing you that “live telephone assistance is not available at this time and normal operations will resume as soon as possible.”  Additionally, if you have been scheduled for an IRS audit, it is temporarily on hold as well.

In response to the situation, the House recently passed an appropriations bill that would enable the IRS to operate again with funding through September 2019.  However, the bill is not expected to pass the Senate.

The good news is that on January 10, 2019, the IRS announced that the tax filing season will begin on January 28, 2019 and refunds will be paid out to taxpayers owed refunds with the filing of their tax return, even if the government remains partially shutdown.  The IRS plans to recall numerous workers back to work without pay.

The bad news is that, according to various new sources, the IRS may not have the authority to call back non-essential workers and demand that they work without pay.  Additionally, according to Barron’s news outlets, “the federal government can pay for certain services during the shutdown if they are deemed “essential,” meaning that they are important to “protect life and property.” But Steve Rosenthal, a senior staff member at the Tax Policy Center, told Barron’s that “historically, the government has not viewed tax refunds as essential.”  In short: It’s one thing to say that the government needs to process some tax returns, as the IRS already planned on doing, to keep funds going for other services deemed essential.  But it’s harder to argue that tax refunds are truly essential to taxpayers under the definition that the federal government has used.  So whether the government, which is literally running out of money, can really pay for tax refunds remains legally murky.”

With no end to the shutdown in sight and just two and a half weeks to the planned start of tax-filing season, it will be interesting to keep a close watch on US taxpayers looking to get a quick turnaround on their anticipated 2018 tax refund checks.