What to Do if You Owe the IRS Money

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

High Cost of Being a Moron: Round 2

For those of you who have been around here for a while (thank you, I wrote very infrequently then), you probably remember my post the high cost of being a moron.  For those of you that don’t to make a long (and rather ill thought out) story short, I bought a car for a good price, had it all lined up to sell it for more than I bought it, and then it got towed, which basically ate up all my profits (and then some).  However, that was basically the last time that I really messed up my finances.  I’ve been doing a good job avoiding fees, making payments on time, and spending less than I earn since then.

Like all good things though, it didn’t last.  In 2010, I decided one of my goals for the year was to not get anymore overdraft fees.  Well, I was able to make it through a whole year without them, and to be honest, I didn’t miss them at all.  I was glad that I was able to keep my money, and because I was spending less than I earn, I got to keep even more of it.  This led to me paying down a lot of debt.  Pleased with my progress, I figured that overdraft fees were a thing of the past and moved on with my life.

Unfortunately, it did not last.  When I was in school, my dad often had interesting sayings that contained advice, and one of my favorites was “Don’t crap in your own mess kit“.  What this meant was that I basically needed to get out of my own way and stop making things hard for myself.  It’s good advice and I found that it works well when I follow it.  One would say that with my paychecks, I don’t.  Here’s how my system works: I have paychecks from both jobs deposited into my savings account at bank 1.  It’s the only account I have at that bank, and it links to my checking account.  After I get paid, transfer some money (but not all) into my checking account.  From there I pay bills, and it usually works out well. At the end of the month, I move more money into my checking account and make a debt payment.  Using this method, I’ve been able to build up some savings as well as pay off a lot of debt.  It’s worked well.

Last week, I made my usual transfer as I had my car, car insurance and student loan payments coming up.  After I signed off, I didn’t think anything of it, and just waited for the auto-bill pay to pull the money from my account.  Two days later (after my payments were supposed to be drawn) I went to check my account balance.  I had -350 or so in my account!  I was obviously stunned, and when I looked at my savings account, the reason was staring me in the face.  Apparently in my haste, I transferred the money from my checking to my savings, instead of the other way around.  There was not enough in my checking to cover the transfer, so the bank turned it down.

Once that happened, I was basically just going to hang there until I could get a new transfer set up and have it finish.  Between those two times I had 2 bills pulling.  The car payment came first, and because of my history (according to the girl at the counter) they decided to pay that and charge me $30 for it.  Then they did the same for my insurance.  The student loans had not drawn by the time I got my account back into the positive, so the damage stayed at around $60 bucks.

After being annoyed at the overdraft fees, I started to look at it another way – what if they had not paid it and I was going to be charged a higher rate over the life of the loan (5 more years)?  I think the rate would have gone up enough (it’s currently .9%) to make the $30 seem like small potatoes in the long term.

Obviously, I’m trying to look on the bright side here, but I’d rather just have my $30 back and have not made a mistake. Have you ever made a dumb financial mistake like this?  What did you do, and how did you rectify the situation? Unfortunately for me, there really was nothing that I could do, so I just had to wait it out.