Millions of Americans scrambled to get their taxes done and paid by April 15.
The majority of filers — three out of four — get refunds. This year the refunds were pretty large, $3,000 on average.
But what if you didn’t hustle to file because you couldn’t pay? Or maybe you did file but couldn’t pay all that you owed? One in six taxpayers owes money, according to the IRS.
Increasingly, I run into people with tax-collection issues. Many are entrepreneurs. In struggling to keep their businesses running, they didn’t pay estimated taxes during the year. So they end up owing the government lots of money.
Fearing the IRS will move aggressively to collect, they don’t call or respond to letters from the agency. Instead, they gravitate to the voices that offer too-good-to-be true deliverance.
“If you owe $10,000 or more to the IRS, call for a free tax consultation,” the saviors say. “We can stop IRS liens, levies and wage garnishment.”
Have faith, the tax-relief companies encourage. Through working with their team of tax experts, often claimed to be former IRS agents, they guarantee they can help you escape most of your tax obligations, including penalties.
But as it says in scripture, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
In the case of tax debt, you can believe if you want that there is some quick fix or a former IRS worker who knows the secret to getting tax relief.
But this kind of blind faith in a debt-settlement company is likely to leave you deeper in debt and still stuck with a tax bill. Many of the companies require thousands of dollars in upfront, nonrefundable fees, money you could apply to your taxes.
In recent years, several large tax-relief companies have closed after authorities accused them of deceptive practices. Roni Deutch, who called herself the “Tax Lady,” shut down her practice after California’s attorney general alleged her company swindled thousands of people by taking large up-front payments while providing little or no help in lowering clients’ tax bills.
The IRS offers a number of options if you owe and can’t pay. You can pursue the options yourself.
In just minutes, you can set up an online payment agreement for up to 72 months if you owe $50,000 or less in combined tax, penalties and interest. Go to www.irs.gov and search for “Online Payment Agreement Application.”
You can also request a payment agreement by filing IRS Form 9465.
“We work with people all the time to get them back in the system,” said IRS spokesman Eric Smith. “Chances are you don’t need to pay somebody. You may be able to do a lot of work on your own. When you see the ads for people saying they can solve your tax debt for pennies on the dollar, many of those kinds of operations are not providing good service to people.”
You can also try to get the IRS to reduce your tax burden by asking for an “offer in compromise,” or OIC. This allows the IRS to accept less than the full tax payment under certain circumstances.
If you’re in great economic hardship, you may qualify for an OIC. But you must provide detailed financial information to prove your economic situation and you have to exhaust all other payment options.
The IRS received 64,000 offers in compromise in the fiscal year that ended last September and it only approved 24,000, an acceptance rate of 38 percent. You can use the IRS’ OIC pre-qualifier tool on its website to check to see if you’re eligible.
Even if you decide you still need help from a tax professional, do some homework to learn about the IRS collection process. If you have a good working knowledge of your own, you’ll get better help.
The IRS has a series of videos at www.irsvideos.gov/owetaxes that provide a lot of information on the collection process, including tips on hiring someone to represent you before the IRS.
If you’re low-income, you may be able to get help through the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic Program, which is run by the Taxpayer Advocate Service and provides free or low-cost assistance.
During the first half of 2012, the program helped eliminate nearly $16.5 million in tax liabilities, penalties and interest. Go to www.irs.gov and search for “Contact A Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic.”
If you have tax debt, stop hoping for a savior and contact the IRS.
Michelle Singletary is a financial columnist for The Washington Post.
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