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Difference Maker

Tax day: 1040 reasons you should know Nina Olson

Nina Olson is the National Taxpayer Advocate – the voice of the public at the IRS. She's trying to help you navigate the tax code you love to loathe.

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Both husband and wife were being held liable for a large debt, but the man had fled the country. The woman was struggling to earn enough money cutting hair to provide for her two children, while also paying the IRS.

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The only way the woman could get relief was if she could prove that she was an "innocent spouse." But the woman's signature on certain documents (probably forged, Olson says) made that difficult. Olson brought in financial records. She summoned handwriting experts. She produced documentation showing the woman's low comprehension of any forms she might have signed. But after 2-1/2 years, nothing happened.

"We got nowhere," Olson says.

In one desperate, final move, she resubmitted the case as a so-called offer in compromise, to be reviewed by an IRS agent. The examiner showed up in Olson's office. "The first thing he said to me was ... this woman reminds me of my mother." He described his mother escaping from a Nazi labor camp in Poland and arriving in the US without being able to speak a word of English.

Olson thought, "Finally, I have found an employee in the IRS who views this person as a human being." The woman ended up not only having the tax debt canceled, but also getting back $16,000 in refunds and interest.

* * *

Olson grew up in Philadelphia, the middle child of a marine engineer and a mom who, as a homemaker, did volunteer work to help women enter the workforce. Early on, Olson says she adopted a habit of sticking up for underdogs and questioning authority – as she puts it, "I was a really obnoxious child."

She pursued a fine-arts degree at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia. Her entry point into the world of finance and taxes came as a young artist, when she started preparing taxes to help earn money.

Olson was also a young mother, whose marriage ended in divorce after five years. To support herself and her son, she increasingly did accounting work. But one day in the mid-1980s she says she "just woke up" to a new view of tax work – that it's rooted in law, not just math.

Olson, living in North Carolina, enrolled in law school to better aid her clients. She drove 16 miles to attend classes at night, while working and raising her son, Lucid Olason. "She did make an uphill struggle," he says of his mom in those years. "That's a big part of who she is."

After getting her law degree, Olson was drawn, improbably, to another uphill struggle: founding a pioneering tax-law clinic. At the time, in the early '90s, pro bono help for low-income people in the US tax court was nearly nonexistent in most states. What there was came from lawyers and students who worked through law-school programs. Olson organized the Community Tax Law Project, in Richmond, Va., and began raising funds and recruiting a cadre of lawyers willing to volunteer.

Keith Fogg, who was the IRS district counsel in Richmond at the time, was often on the opposing side from Olson when tax issues came up. "I thought her idea was very good because so many people are unrepresented who go before the US tax court," says Mr. Fogg, now a professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. (Even today, about 7 in 10 taxpayers in the court have no lawyer.)

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