Michelle Singletary: Owe taxes? Be your own savior with the IRS

Michelle Singletary
Columnist April 16, 2013

Millions of Americans scrambled to get their taxes done and paid by April 15.

The majority of filers — three out of four — receive refunds. This year, the refunds were pretty large, $3,000 on average.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

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 Internal Revenue Service.

Increasingly, I run into people with tax collection issues. Many are entrepreneurs. In struggling to keep their businesses operating, they didn’t pay estimated taxes during the year. So they end up owing the government a lot.

Fearing that 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 experts, often claimed to be former IRS agents, they guarantee that 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 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 put toward 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 that her company swindled thousands of people by taking large upfront payments while providing little or no help in lowering tax bills.

The IRS offers various options for those who can’t pay what they owe. 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 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,” IRS spokesman Eric Smith said. “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 also can ask the IRS for an “offer in compromise,” or OIC. This allows the agency to accept less than the full tax payment under certain circumstances. If you’re facing 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 during the fiscal year that ended in September and approved 24,000, an acceptance rate of 38 percent. You can use the IRS’s OIC pre-qualifier tool on its Web site to find out whether you’re eligible.

Even if 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, you’ll get better help, Smith said.

The IRS has a series of videos at IRSVideos.gov/OweTaxes about the collection process, including tips on hiring someone to represent you before the IRS. If your income is low, 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 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.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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