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When taxes are delinquent or overdue, typically from previous years, they are referred to as back taxes. And if you owe them, you might be wondering about tax relief.
Here are four common options that could help you find some tax relief, plus guidance on how to file back taxes and how many years you can file back taxes for.
1. IRS payment plans
If you need more time to pay your tax bill, the IRS will probably give it to you in the form of a payment plan. A payment plan will allow you to pay back your overdue tax bill (plus accrued interest and fees) as installments over a period of time.
The IRS offers two types of installment plans: short-term and long-term.
Payment plan type
Maximum you can owe to qualify
Setup fee & payment methods
Short-term payment plan
$100,000 in combined tax, penalties and interest.
$0 to apply online, by phone, by mail or in person. Pay balance by:
Long-term payment plan
(120 days or more)
$50,000 in combined tax, penalties and interest.
If you pay through automatic debit withdrawals:
If you pay by another method (e.g., Direct Pay, EFTPS or money order):
Taxpayers can also apply for an extended short-term payment plan of up to 180 days by contacting the IRS by phone or mail.
Here are a few things to know about getting tax relief via an IRS payment plan:
A payment plan doesn’t get you out of interest and penalties for late payments. Those accrue until your balance is zero.
If you owe more than $25,000, you have to make your payments via automatic withdrawals from a bank account.
If you make your payments with a debit or credit card, you'll have to pay a processing fee. The charge for debit cards runs from about $2 to $4 per payment; the charge for credit cards is about 2% of the payment.
"Low-income applicant" generally means your adjusted gross income is at or below 250% of the federal poverty level. You can see if you qualify on IRS Form 13844.
2. Offer in compromise
You might be able to find tax relief through what’s called an "offer in compromise." This lets you settle your back taxes with the IRS for less than you owe. According to the IRS, it may be an option if you absolutely can’t pay your tax debt or if doing so creates a financial hardship.
But it's much harder to get the IRS to sign off on an offer in compromise than on a payment plan. The IRS accepts fewer than half the requests. You should explore other options before turning to an offer in compromise.
To determine whether you qualify for tax relief via an offer in compromise, the IRS considers your ability to pay, your income and expenses, and how much you have in assets.
Applying for an offer in compromise
The materials and instructions for submitting an offer in compromise are in IRS Form 656-B. Here are some things to know:
There’s a $205 fee, and it's nonrefundable. (Low-income taxpayers can get a waiver.)
You’ll need to make an initial payment, which is also nonrefundable.
You have to be current on all your tax returns. If you haven’t filed a tax return in a while, you may not qualify.
The IRS can file or keep tax liens in place until it accepts your offer and you’ve fulfilled your end of the deal.
You don’t qualify if you are in an open bankruptcy proceeding.
You can hire a qualified tax professional to help you do the paperwork, but it’s not required.
Once you file your application, the IRS suspends collection activities.
If the IRS accepts your offer
Your initial payment has to be either 20% of what you’re offering to pay (if you're paying in five or fewer installments) or your first monthly installment (if you're paying in six or more monthly installments).
Be aware that some of the information about your offer in compromise could be made public. The IRS’s public inspection files on offers in compromise include the taxpayer's name, city, state, ZIP code, liability amount and offer terms.
Any federal tax liens the IRS has filed against you don't go away until you’ve fulfilled your end of the deal.
If the IRS rejects your offer, you can appeal within 30 days.
3. "Currently-not-collectible" status
If you can't pay your taxes and your living expenses, within reason, you can ask the IRS to put your account in what’s called "currently-not-collectible" status. You need to request this delay in collection, and the IRS may ask you to complete a Collection Information Statement or a Collection Information Statement for Wage Earners and Self-Employed Individuals form to prove your finances are as bad as you say they are. You'll need to supply information about your monthly income and expenses on that form.
Here are some things to know about this form of tax relief:
It's temporary — the IRS may review your income annually to see if your financial situation has improved.
Being deemed "currently not collectible" doesn't make your tax debt go away.
The IRS can still file a tax lien against you.
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4. Hiring a tax-relief company
Tax-relief companies typically offer to help taxpayers in distress. Some of them can be helpful if you’re confused about the process or need help filling out forms. But remember:
The IRS rejects most applications for offers in compromise.
If a tax-relief company loses or delays your application, you’re still on the hook for your tax debt, interest and penalties with the IRS.
You may have to pay an upfront fee to the tax-relief company, and it may be a percentage of the tax you owe. That fee may be higher than what you end up saving on your tax bill if the IRS accepts your offer in compromise (and it might not be refundable if the IRS rejects your offer).
Tread carefully, the Federal Trade Commission warns: "The truth is that most taxpayers don't qualify for the programs these fraudsters hawk, their companies don't settle the tax debt, and in many cases don't even send the necessary paperwork to the IRS requesting participation in the programs that were mentioned. Adding insult to injury, some of these companies don't provide refunds, and leave people even further in debt."
Some tax-relief companies will charge you a fee to determine how much you owe the IRS, set up a payment plan or see if you qualify for an offer in compromise. But these are things you can often do yourself for free:
Find out whether you have a balance outstanding with the IRS and how much it is. You can get that (and up to 5 years of your payment history) at IRS.gov/account. Signing up takes about 15 minutes.
Get your tax records. The IRS provides five types of free tax transcripts that let you peek at its records on you. For example, you can see most line items from your tax returns processed during the last three years or get basic data such as your marital status, how you paid and your adjusted gross income for the current tax year and for up to the last 10 years. (Note that a tax transcript isn’t the same as a copy of your tax return.)
Set up a payment plan with the IRS, as described above.
See if you qualify for an offer in compromise. You can use the IRS's online pre-qualifier tool to see if an offer in compromise might be for you. Remember, the tool is just the beginning of the journey — you'll still need to complete a formal application.
Frequently asked tax-relief questions
How do you file back taxes?
If you're behind on filing your tax returns and need to file for prior years, you can. Here are some things to remember:
Gather your documents. You'll need to gather tax documents for the tax year in question. For example, if you’re filing your 2020 tax return, you’ll need your W-2, 1099s and any other pertinent documents from 2020.
Get a transcript if you need one. If you don't have those documents, you can request an IRS tax transcript for that year. Although you won't get exact photocopies of the documents, you'll get the information contained in those documents, which is what you'll need to get your return done.
Use the right forms. Don't file a 2020 tax return using 2021 forms. Tax rules and tax forms are different every year. You can search for older forms and instructions on the IRS website.
Don't be afraid to ask for help. Many tax software packages allow you to file prior-year tax returns.
How many years can you file back taxes for?
Technically, you must file all the tax returns that you're required to file, and the IRS can come after you for any year that went unfiled.
However, IRS Policy Statement 5-133 also says that it takes managerial approval to go back more than six years when it comes to enforcing delinquency procedures.
What are the advantages of filing back taxes?
Catching up on past-due tax returns seems like an overwhelming task, but there are a few things in it for you.
You avoid having the IRS do it for you. This is called a substitute return. What basically happens is the IRS takes the information it has on hand for you, uses it to cobble together a tax return, and sends you the bill. That may sound convenient, but it's almost always a guaranteed headache. The IRS often doesn't know which tax deductions or tax credits you might have qualified for, leading to a bill higher than what you might've had if you'd done it yourself.
You can pay your tax bill in installments. Filing a tax return late and paying a tax bill late are two different things with two different sets of penalties. Don't avoid filing a tax return just because you can't pay the bill. Again, the IRS offers several types of installment plans (and other payment programs) you can use to pay over time.
The government might owe you money. If you're due a tax refund for a prior year, claim it by filing your tax return for that year. In fact, the IRS estimates that unclaimed refunds from 2018 may total up to $1.5 billion. But don't drag your feet; you only have three years from the original tax return due date to claim old tax refunds.
You can avoid problems getting a loan. Copies of current tax returns are a common requirement for getting mortgages and other loans.
Find the tax-relief company that's best for you
We've weighed the pros and cons of some major players in the space.