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If you owe the IRS and can’t pay, this is what you should and shouldn’t do

Dreading the April 18 tax deadline because you can’t pay your bill? A former national taxpayer advocate offers advice on tackling the debt.

(Erin Scott/Reuters)
5 min

This column was originally published May 4, 2021. It has been updated.

If you owe the IRS, how you decide to handle this debt could either soothe your anxiety or send you on an expensive journey that ends with more heartache than help.

So what should you do?

Let me share what Nina Olson, executive director of the Center for Taxpayer Rights, had to say. Olson, who formerly served as the independent national taxpayer advocate, has witnessed the financial calamity that can ensue when people who owe the IRS ignore the problem or seek refuge from pricey tax debt relief operations. The Taxpayer Advocate Service is an independent organization within the IRS that helps people resolve issues with the agency.

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“I always tell people that the worst thing that they can do is nothing,” Olson said during an interview. “The IRS is not going to go away. It chugs along like a machine, and if you don’t respond to it, it will reach out to you in the form of levying your bank account or garnishing your paycheck.”

Here’s what Olson says you should and shouldn’t do if you owe the IRS.

Should do: Contact the IRS

There is so much assistance online at Click the link that says “Make a Payment,” and you’ll find information about options if you can’t pay your tax bill.

If you fear the wrath of the IRS, your instinct might be to do anything but contact the almighty agency.

Yet Olson says that’s exactly what you should do — with a caveat. Prepare for a long wait for help on the phone when you call the agency’s 1040 toll-free line (800-829-1040).

“I always say bring your knitting while you’re sitting on the phone,” Olson said.

There’s a good reason to confess your financial situation. The IRS will make a notation in your file that could put a hold on the more aggressive collection actions, Olson says.

“It will keep bad things from happening,” she says.

Also, be sure to file your return even if you can’t pay to avoid the penalty for failing to file.

Shouldn’t do: Fall for false or exaggerated tax debt relief promises

You want a quick fix, so you consider calling the toll-free number for a company that says it has “skilled” agents who can make a deal with the IRS to solve your debt dilemma.

If you absolutely feel you can’t handle a collection issue on your own and need the services of a tax professional, do some research. Don’t default to contacting a company you heard about on the radio or a television commercial.

You don’t want to end up paying hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars to the firm for something you could have done yourself by going straight to the IRS. Or worse, the tax-debt relief company is a scam.

Should do: Seek help from a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic

If your income is low enough, you could get free help from Low Income Taxpayer Clinics, which can represent you before the IRS in tax collection matters and other disputes.

In 2019, such clinics helped decrease or correct $50 million in tax liabilities, according to the Taxpayer Advocate Service. You can use the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic finder at

Expect smaller refunds and continued phone delays this tax season

Should do: Ask for a payment plan

If you’re comfortable with doing things online, use the online payment plan application at You can set up a plan for free or at a minimal cost.

You may qualify for an installment agreement to pay off your outstanding balance over time, including any penalty and interest, of course. To help folks struggling to pay, particularly because of the pandemic, the IRS said it initiated a number of changes, including extending the short-term payment plan time frame to 180 days, instead of the usual 120 days.

You can also apply for an “Offer in Compromise” (OIC), a program in which the IRS will settle a tax debt for less than the full amount owed. Typically, qualifying for an OIC is extremely difficult. But a lot of people who may not have been good candidates for an OIC before the pandemic are good candidates now, Olson said.

Shouldn’t do: Accept a payment plan you can’t afford

“My caution about using the [] online tool is to see what the number is that comes up,” Olson said. “It may give you a number that is more than you can afford to pay. You don’t have to agree to that. But that means you have to go and talk to someone at the IRS.”

Once you reach a customer representative, you’ll be asked for additional information about your situation. Be sure to reveal all your financial challenges.

People get flustered, and often they don’t say things like, ‘I have a huge medical bill coming up’ or ‘I have a child with special needs,’ ” Olson said.

If you can’t pay anything, you can ask to be put in a status called “Currently Not Collectible.” It’s a recognition from the IRS that you can’t afford to pay anything right now.

“That doesn’t mean the debt goes away,” Olson said. “It’ll put a marker on your account that basically says you do not have the ability to pay your basic living expenses and at the same time pay the IRS.”

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