February 24, 2019

What Happens if You Can’t Pay Your Taxes?

Written By Jack Ryder
Last updated November 22, 2019

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Simple. Thrifty. Living.

Owing the IRS more than you can pay is unnerving, because it’s not a debt you can ignore. However, if you should find yourself in this situation, the most important thing to do is to follow the first instruction from the IRS: “Don’t panic.” Once you have managed to transition from fear mode to methodical planning, here are the steps you should take:

Even if you can’t pay the full amount, you still should file your tax return by the regular deadline, and include a payment for as much as you can afford. Hiding from the debt by not filing just gives you two problems instead of one. Also, filing for an extension won’t help. That’s because IRS rules say you’re supposed to pay what you owe by the regular deadline, even if you file your official return six months later. Be sure to use one of the best online tax services to be sure your return is filed properly and thoroughly. Read our reviews to help you decide which service to select.

Next, pick up the phone. Just like any other creditor, the IRS would like to hear from you directly. You can call them at 1-800-829-1040 to discuss a payment plan that will work for you. If you have filed your tax return on time and owe less than $50,000 total including penalties and interest, you can file an Online Payment Agreement Application. In some instances, the IRS will waive the penalties associated with overdue tax payments although they are not able to waive the interest that will accumulate on late taxes.

While the IRS is willing to allow you to pay off your tax debt over time, they do point out that it is to your advantage to get this obligation cleared up as soon as possible. Even if that means borrowing the money, you’ll be better off. That’s because the interest and penalties they’d charge is likely to be more expensive than the interest you’d pay on a credit card or other loan. You can try an online loan company such as Upstart, which usually has a lower interest rate than an online loan.

Tax settlement firms advertise the ability to persuade the IRS to accept less than you owe. This process is called an “offer in compromise.” The individual taxpayer can initiate this process as well. It’s important to know that the IRS grants fewer than 10 percent of such settlement requests.

Whichever route you decide to take, you will need to square things up with the IRS. The government has the power to seize assets and garnish wages. If you deliberately misrepresented your income, you may suffer criminal penalties as well. Work out your payments and you can still enjoy a pleasant post-tax-audit life.

About the Author

Jack Ryder

Jack Ryder has been working as a reporter and writer in the personal finance space for many years. He enjoys breaking down complicated finance information into easy-to-read articles, so his readers can better navigate their financial lives. He is currently the Editor of the Credit Repair and Debt Relief categories, although enjoys writing about all things finance. Jack has had articles appear in publications from the Huffington Post to Business Insider. You can contact Jack at

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