Tax Repayment Help: Understanding the Available Options

Andrea Miller
Expert Contributor
Last Updated:
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  • Even if you can’t pay your taxes, you still need to file your tax return to minimize penalties and fees.
  • The IRS offers several routes for repayment, including payment plans, offers in compromise, and currently not collectible status.
  • If you do not make arrangements to pay your back taxes, a lien can be placed on your personal property, which means the IRS can claim your assets.

If you’re unable to pay your taxes, you aren’t alone. More than 10 million Americans faced late payment penalties annually according to data from the IRS reported by Nerd Wallet. Fortunately, tax repayment help is available, ranging from plans that allow you to pay your past-due taxes overtime to tax relief through bankruptcy. Here’s what you need to know if you’re facing IRS back taxes you can’t afford.

File Your Tax Return

If you expect to owe the IRS, you might put off filing your tax return, but this strategy is much more costly in the long term. The monthly penalty for unpaid taxes is 0.5 percent of your balance, compared to 5 percent of your balance monthly if you fail to file. That means if you don’t file taxes, you’re multiplying your penalty by 10 compared to filing but not paying.

What’s more, you can eventually face criminal penalties, including jail time, for failing to file your taxes. That’s not the case for failure to pay.

If you have a legitimate reason for failing to file your tax return, such as lost records or paperwork, apply for an extension to the filing deadline as soon as possible.

When it comes to dealing with the IRS, ignoring the problem is never the best route. The sooner you take action, the better it will be for your overall financial situation. Read each notice you receive from the IRS carefully, as it will contain important information about how to proceed and deadlines such as the amount of time you have to file an appeal.

Tax Repayment Help: Understanding the Available Options

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IRS Routes for Repayment

The IRS provides options for taxpayers who can’t fully pay their balance within 120 days of their tax assessment.

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Installment Agreement

You can request an installment agreement if you need to pay your balance over time, provided you owe less than $50,000, including assessed interest and penalties. Keep in mind that entering a payment plan is sometimes associated with fees and additional interest, so read the agreement carefully before signing. You can pay off your balance within 72 months through convenient monthly direct debit. To apply, file IRS Form 9465 Installment Agreement Request or use the Online Payment Agreement tool. If you are requesting an automatic payment plan, the application fee is $31 to apply online or $107 for a phone application. Non-automatic plans cost $149 to apply online or $225 to apply by phone. The application fee is reduced to $43 for applicants who are considered low-income under the federal poverty guidelines.

Currently Not Collectible Status

If you can prove that you are insolvent, which means you have more back taxes than the value of your assets, you can request that the IRS list your account as Currently Not Collectible (CNC). However, you’ll eventually have to pay, and the back tax amount continues to accrue interest and penalties during the length of the CNC status.

Offer in Compromise

Request an offer in compromise (OIC), in which the IRS agrees to settle your account for less than the full balance owed. To qualify, you must show that paying the full amount would create an undue financial hardship. Approval for an OIC is rare, so you should pursue this route with the advice and guidance of a qualified tax attorney. The IRS typically only approves an offer when it represents the highest amount it could reasonably expect to collect from you before the statute of limitations on back taxes expires (10 years). For example, any tax refunds you receive during this time are applied to your back taxes separate from the accepted offer.

Penalty Abatement

In rare cases, the IRS may offer penalty abatement. This wipes out tax penalties for those who have been unable to pay due to hardship. Abatement of interest charged on past-due back taxes is quite rare, however. Avoid engaging with a tax relief company that promises to wipe out your IRS penalties and interest. These programs are available only to specific taxpayers under a very limited set of circumstances.

Back Tax Assistance Programs

Programs for relief of back taxes at the state level vary by state. For example, some states offer penalty and interest abatement while others do not. Check with the Office of the Comptroller for your state to learn more about available relief programs.

Additional Repayment Options

If you have good credit, you may be able to get a personal loan or credit line to pay off your back taxes. You should only pursue this option if you can qualify for an interest rate lower than the interest charged by the IRS. If you opt for a 0 percent interest credit card, make sure you pay the balance completely before the low introductory rate expires.

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Those in significant debt in addition to their back taxes may consider filing for bankruptcy. Bankruptcy wipes out certain types of income back taxes as well as unsecured debt such as credit cards and medical bills. Talk to a CPA or a bankruptcy attorney about the tax consequences of filing Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

Dealing With a Tax Lien

When your back taxes are unpaid, the IRS will place a lien on your property. A lien allows the federal government to claim the property to satisfy your past-due balance. Tax liens can be placed on bank accounts, real estate, vehicles, and other personal property. You can even have a lien placed on future wages, which allows the bank to garnish your paycheck to pay the IRS.

If you receive more than one Notice and Demand for Payment from the IRS and do not respond, you will receive a Notice of Federal Tax Lien. The only way to remove the lien is by paying your back taxes in full. You may be able to discharge the lien from specific property, which would allow you to sell or refinance the property to repay your debt.

Some taxpayers may qualify for a withdrawal of the federal tax lien through IRS Fresh Start Program. This program requires satisfying outstanding back taxes and filing all required tax returns for the past three years. If you are required to make federal tax deposits or estimated tax payments, these must also be current.

You can also qualify if you meet these conditions but have entered a direct debit installment agreement rather than paying your balance in full. This option is available to individual taxpayers who owe less than $50,000. Your agreement must repay the balance in full within 72 months. Previously, the Fresh Start program was open only to taxpayers owing less than $25,000 and had a shorter maximum payment term of 60 months.

Before your tax lien is withdrawn under the Fresh Start program, you must make at least three direct debit payments as agreed. You are not eligible if you have ever defaulted on an IRS installment agreement.

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If you do not take action to repay your taxes or work with the IRS to come up with a solution once you have received a tax lien notice, the agency will send you a Final Notice of Intent to Levy and Notice of Your Right to a Hearing. This notice outlines the intention of the IRS to seize personal property to satisfy your back taxes.

If your account reaches this stage of collections, you should speak with a qualified tax attorney immediately. You have the right to appeal the amount of back taxes and request CNC status if you are unable to pay the balance without hardship. However, you need to provide extensive proof of your financial situation.

A tax lien will appear on your credit report and have a negative impact on your credit score. The extent of this impact depends on the age of the tax lien, the total amount of back taxes under the lien, and the amount that remains unpaid. The older your back taxes and the smaller the amount, the lower the impact on your credit score.

The most foolproof way to have a tax lien removed is by paying your back taxes in full. If you are unable to do so, you can request removal of a lien by enrolling in the Fresh Start program, arranging for an installment agreement, or successfully applying for an offer in compromise. After taking one of these paths, you must file IRS Form 12277 to request removal of the lien. You should submit copies of this request to all three credit bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian), along with proof that the debt is paid.

Evaluating Back Tax Assistance Companies

If you’ve ever watched daytime TV, you’ve seen ads for companies that promise to reduce your back taxes for a fraction of what you owe. Before signing on the dotted line, though, it’s important to evaluate the business in question to ensure it will deliver what is promised. Check with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to find out whether the company has been the subject of customer complaints. Some companies charge nonrefundable fees of thousands of dollars and do not deliver on their promises to arrange for back tax forgiveness. They may neglect to determine whether you are eligible for an offer in compromise before taking your money or even fail to submit offer in compromise paperwork to the IRS.

Do not pay money upfront for this type of service before doing your due diligence to thoroughly research the company. When you do enter an agreement with a legitimate company, review the refund policy before signing any documents. A high default billing rate is a red flag, as is an agreement that does not allow your fee to be refunded if a back tax assistance settlement is not reached. According to the FTC, sIgns of a back tax assistance scam include:

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  • Promises to eliminate or drastically reduce back taxes.
  • Failure to evaluate your financial information before enrolling you in the program.
  • Delaying your application for weeks or months before informing you that you do not qualify for the program, without refunding the fees you’ve already paid.
  • Guarantees of debt forgiveness and/or waivers of penalties and interest.
  • Reaching out to you directly through emails, letters, or phone calls to offer back tax assistance.
  • Stalling your case by repeatedly asking for the same documents or simply failing to return correspondence.

Only certain individuals are allowed to represent you in official IRS proceedings, which are required for any type of back tax assistance. If the back tax assistance company does not provide representation from a certified public accountant, enrolled agent, or tax attorney, it will not be able to negotiate with the IRS on your behalf. Remember, only the IRS can make the final determination to forgive back taxes penalties, or interest.

If you encounter a back tax assistance company that promises to release you from tax liabilities, misrepresents the amount of time it will take to process your application for relief, or omits important information on statements submitted to the IRS, you can make an official complaint. This requires filing Form 14157: Complaint: Tax Return Preparer. You should also file a complaint online with the FTC.

Seeking Legal Assistance

If you cannot afford an attorney to negotiate with the IRS on your behalf, you may be eligible for assistance through the low-income taxpayer clinics, a program managed by the Taxpayer Advocate Service with locations across the nation. This service is also available for taxpayers who speak English as a second language. The attorneys who work for these clinics can represent you during tax collection matters, audits, appeals, and disputes. Fees are assessed on a sliding scale based on income and may even be free for some taxpayers. In general, you must have income under the federal poverty threshold and no more than $50,000 in back tax assistance to qualify.

Taxpayer Advocate Service can consult with you about other tax problems as well. If you are having trouble receiving a response from the IRS or are experiencing economic hardship because of your back tax assistance, this agency provides assistance.

Seek help for your back taxes with Solvable. Answer a few simple questions about your finances to be matched with well-reviewed back tax assistance companies that can help you explore your repayment options and choose the best solution for your situation.


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Andrea Miller
Expert Contributor
Last Updated: