Let’s start with this: the IRS is the biggest, best resourced, and more powerful collection agency in the world. So, while I’m not suggesting that you’d otherwise try and avoid a debt to any person or organization, if you’re typically the procrastinating type that needs things to get serious and urgent before you’re motivated to take action, then please allow me to be your wake-up call: this is serious and urgent. The letters and calls won’t stop, and when the IRS threatens wage garnishment, tax levies and other collection action, they mean it. It’s not an empty threat.
With that being said, you shouldn’t feel as though your (financial) world is coming to an end, and that it’s only a matter of time before black tie and sunglass-wearing IRS Special Agents show up at your door and haul you to debtor’s prison.
According to Jeff Kahn, principal of the Tax Law Offices of Jeffrey B. Kahn and host of a weekly ESPN radio show that covers tax law and audit-related issues, here are two things to do if you owe the IRS money:
- Confirm that the IRS’s math adds up.
This just in: the IRS makes mistakes (and in other breaking news, water is wet, the sun is hot, and sarcasm never goes out of style). As such, start by confirming that the amount that you allegedly owe is indeed correct. Keep in mind that a single missed checkbox on a tax form can result in a deduction being denied.
- Minimize penalties and interest.
If you confirm that you do, in fact, owe Uncle Sam some money, and presuming that you cannot pay the full amount by the due date, your next step is to minimize penalties and interest. There are a few options here that may be applicable to your situation, including: asking for an abatement, seeing if you qualify for an installment plan, and seeing if you qualify for an offer-in-compromise (this is basically asking the IRS to settle for less then the amount owed because full payment is unlikely). Keep in mind that the paperwork required for each of these options — especially the offer-in-compromise — is complex, and most people who try the do-it-yourself route get things wrong and have their application or petition rejected.
Some Final Words of Warning
Before wrapping up: be very, very careful when speaking to IRS agents. Once again, I’m not trying to freak anyone out. But facts are facts, and you need to know that speaking with an IRS agent to get more information on your tax situation isn’t the ordinary call center “how can I help you today?” conversation that you’re used to. While you aren’t under oath or giving a deposition, anything you say — including the questions you ask — can and will be used to trigger a deeper examination of your filings (the IRS can go back much further than three years if they suspect fraud or tax evasion). And in extreme cases, your matter might be referred to the IRS’s Criminal Investigation division for potential prosecution.
So yes, it’s fine to simply ask ordinary questions (e.g. “where can I find this form?”), but anything else should be handled by your tax attorney — not by your accountant, whose conversations with you and work product isn’t protected by attorney-client privilege.