What Happens if You Can’t Pay Your Taxes?

Written By Jeff Hindenach
Last updated February 2, 2021

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February 24, 2019

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

Jeff Hindenach

Jeff Hindenach is the co-founder of Simple. Thrifty. Living. He graduated from Bowling Green State University with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism. He has a long history of financial journalism, with a background writing for newspapers such as the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Examiner, as well as writing on personal finance for The Huffington Post, New York Times, Business Insider, CNBC, Newsday and The Street. He believes in giving readers the tools they need to get out of debt.

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