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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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Nina Olson sits in her office at the IRS building in Washington, D.C.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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It was supposed to be her benevolent deed for the day – helping a family member with a tax return. But soon Nina Olson was lost in the labyrinth that is the United States tax code.

The problem at hand was an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA) – how to know which contributions to it would be tax-deductible for a person who had some job income while also receiving Social Security benefits.

Yes, there's a special IRS worksheet for that. Three of them, actually, in Appendix B of Internal Revenue Service Publication 590.

"The calculations were so unbelievable," says Ms. Olson. "It was something like enter Line 2 on Line 12; divide by 83; multiply times four, and then times 0.125 or something."

Olson stoically did the best she could. But it wasn't good enough. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ended up notifying her family member of a mistake on the calculations.

It's the kind of bad tax day that could happen to anyone. As it turns out, though, Olson isn't just any average American. She's one of the most knowledgeable people on earth about the IRS and US tax law.

By the time she wrangled with these worksheets in exasperation, she had already made a whole career in the tax field: earning a living preparing returns, becoming a tax lawyer, founding a nonprofit to help people with tax problems, and then assuming the role of National Taxpayer Advocate – a kind of "voice of the people" within the IRS. If Olson finds the tax code bewildering, it's little wonder millions of Americans do, too.

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