If you know you’re getting a refund come tax time, filing your taxes can almost feel fun. But if you suspect you're going to owe the IRS money you don't have, it can be hard to even start the process.
According to a NerdWallet survey, of those who failed to file by last year’s extended July 15, 2020, deadline, 24% knew they owed money but were unable to pay, and 18% didn’t know if they owed, but were afraid to receive a bill they couldn’t pay.
The tax bill you know is better than the tax bill you don’t
Like most problems, stuffing your tax bill in a drawer and forgetting about it won’t make it go away.
If filing your taxes to begin with is burdensome, it may be possible to get help. The federal government has a few programs to offer free tax help to qualified individuals, such as Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and Tax Counseling for the Elderly. Many tax providers also offer a free version of their software for those with simple tax situations, and the IRS itself offers a free file program to those who qualify.
But if you’re pushing off filing because you’re concerned about owing taxes, you should understand your options for tax relief. Here are five ways to get some tax debt help.
1. Pay what you can
No matter what you owe, you should still try to file on time (or file an extension if you can’t make the deadline). Filing an extension will give you more time to file your taxes, not more time to pay your bill, but skipping the extension can lead to harsher penalties.
If you don’t pay your taxes, the IRS charges interest on what you owe. You may not be able to afford your whole tax bill, but if you pay a portion of that bill, you’ll cut down on the amount of interest you’ll have to pay on the rest of your owed taxes.
2. Consider an IRS payment plan
An IRS payment plan, also called an installment agreement, allows you to pay the taxes you owe within an extended time frame.
According to Jordie V. Neth, a certified public accountant and owner of RainCity CPA in Seattle, once you set a monthly payment plan, you can’t renegotiate those payments. “The IRS allows you to pay it off over [up to] 72 months. If you do that option, you can always pay extra, but you can never pay less,” Neth says.
Neth recommends breaking your payments over the longest possible time frame so they are set at the lowest possible amount. “That way, if push comes to shove and you’re in a hardship, you actually have the ability to pay the minimal amount due for any given month,” Neth says.
Keep in mind, a payment plan will incur some interest and penalty charges. You may also have to pay a processing fee for using a debit or credit card and a setup fee, depending on the length of your payment plan and whether or not you apply online.
3. Apply for an offer in compromise
An offer in compromise lets you settle your tax debt. According to Tina Pittman, a CPA and owner of Your Accountant in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, one of the major benefits of an offer in compromise is that you will end up paying less than what you really owe. Pittman says there are other benefits to an offer in compromise as well, such as avoiding collection calls and letters from the IRS.
Applying for an offer in compromise is a long process that involves a lot of documentation to prove you can’t afford your tax bill, a $205 application fee and an initial payment toward your bill. While your application is being considered, your payments and fees will be applied to your balance, which you will still need to pay off eventually — even if the IRS agrees to reduce it.
Keep in mind, the IRS rejects most applications for offers in compromise. In this case, your initial payment will likely be applied to your balance. Your application fee may be refundable in certain situations.
If you meet the low-income certification requirements, you may not need to pay the application fee or initial payment. You also won’t need to make monthly payments while your offer is being evaluated.
4. Ask for a 'currently not collectible' status
Those who can’t pay their tax bill may ask to be put into “currently not collectible” status by the IRS. This means the IRS will temporarily delay collection until your financial situation improves. Keep in mind that this is just a temporary label the IRS puts on your account; the status is not permanent, and you will eventually need to pay your tax debt. (The IRS can also still file a lien against you while you have this status.)
To obtain a currently not collectible status, you’ll need to fill out a form and provide information about your assets, monthly income and expenses.
5. Consult a specialist if you can
Pittman advises people to see a tax professional before taking action with the IRS.
“People are not aware that there are different options with the IRS. They automatically assume all they have is the installment agreement, on which you have to pay the penalties and interest.”
If you can’t afford to work with a tax professional, there are resources for free tax help that may clarify what options would be right for you.