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Understanding Tax Debt: How It Works and What You Can Do to Resolve It

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Tax debt can burden individuals and businesses, causing stress, financial strain, and potential legal consequences. Fortunately, there are ways to obtain tax debt relief.

March 28, 2024
Author: NCH

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What Is Tax Debt Relief?

Tax debt relief refers to strategies and programs designed to reduce or eliminate the amount owed to the IRS by taxpayers who cannot fully pay their taxes. This can occur for various reasons, including financial hardship, unexpected life events, or errors in tax filing. 

The primary goal of tax debt relief is to provide individuals and businesses with a path toward resolving their tax obligations while minimizing the negative consequences of unpaid taxes.

How Tax Debt Relief Works

Tax debt relief operates through established procedures that allow taxpayers to negotiate with the IRS to settle their outstanding tax liabilities. The process usually begins with the taxpayer acknowledging their tax debt and initiating communication with the IRS. 

Several options may be pursued from there, depending on the taxpayer’s financial situation and the amount owed. These may include the following:

Installment Agreements

With an installment agreement, taxpayers can pay their debt over time in manageable monthly installments. These agreements provide flexible repayment terms, helping people avoid financial strain while fulfilling their tax obligations. The agreements can be structured over varying periods depending on the amount owed and the taxpayer’s circumstances.

Offer in Compromise (OIC)

An OIC allows eligible taxpayers to settle their tax debts for less than the full amount owed. To qualify for one, taxpayers must demonstrate an inability to pay their tax debt in full or prove that doing so would cause undue financial hardship. The IRS evaluates OIC requests based on the taxpayer’s income, expenses, asset equity, and overall financial capacity.

Penalty Abatement

Penalty abatement relieves certain penalties imposed by the IRS, such as failure-to-file or failure-to-pay penalties. Taxpayers may qualify for penalty abatement if they demonstrate reasonable cause for failing to comply with tax obligations. Circumstances may include natural disasters, serious illness, or erroneous advice from a tax professional.

IRS Tax Debt Relief Programs

In addition to the options mentioned above, the IRS offers several specialized programs to assist taxpayers in resolving their tax debt. These programs are designed to provide targeted relief for specific situations and taxpayer profiles.

  • Fresh Start Initiative: The Fresh Start Initiative aims to make it easier for taxpayers to resolve their tax debts through streamlined processes and relaxed eligibility criteria for installment agreements and offers in compromise.
  • In-Business Trust Fund Express Installment Agreement: This program assists businesses in resolving their payroll tax liabilities by offering expedited installment agreements for certain qualifying taxpayers.
  • Innocent Spouse Relief: Innocent Spouse Relief provides relief to individuals unaware of or not responsible for errors on a jointly filed tax return, protecting them from liability for their spouse’s tax debt.

Alternatives to IRS Tax Debt Relief

Tax Debt Settlement Companies

Tax debt settlement companies specialize in negotiating with the IRS on behalf of taxpayers to reduce their tax debt. These companies typically charge a fee for their services, which can vary depending on the complexity of the case and the amount of tax debt involved. 

Although tax debt settlement companies can provide assistance and expertise in dealing with the IRS, taxpayers should exercise caution and thoroughly research any company before engaging in their services to avoid scams or unethical practices.

Financial Hardship Assistance Programs

Various nonprofit organizations and government agencies offer financial hardship assistance programs to help individuals and families facing economic challenges, including tax debt. These programs may provide financial counseling, budgeting assistance, and emergency financial assistance to help individuals address their tax debt and improve their overall financial situation. 


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Some community organizations offer pro bono legal services or volunteer tax preparation assistance to low-income taxpayers.

Other Tax Debt Relief Strategies to Consider

Tip #1: Assess Your Tax Debt

The first step in resolving tax debt is understanding exactly how much you owe and why. Gather all relevant documents, including tax returns, notices from the IRS or state tax agency, and any correspondence related to your tax debt. Reviewing these documents will help determine the amount owed and the tax years involved. Also, don’t forget to consider any penalties or interest accrued on top of the initial debt.

Tip #2: Contact the IRS or State Tax Agency

If you cannot fully pay your tax debt, communicate with the IRS or state tax agency immediately. You will only aggravate the problem when you ignore it. The IRS may be willing to work with you to create a payment plan or offer other forms of relief, but you must be proactive in reaching out to them. You can contact the IRS by phone, mail, or through their website.

Tip #3: Explore Bankruptcy Options 

In some cases, filing for bankruptcy may be the best option for resolving tax debt. Chapter 7 bankruptcy can eliminate certain types of tax debt, while Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows you to reorganize your debts and create a repayment plan. 

However, bear in mind that bankruptcy should only be considered a last resort, as it can have serious long-term consequences for your credit and financial future.

Tip #4: Seek Professional Assistance

Dealing with tax debt can be complex and overwhelming, especially if you’re unfamiliar with tax laws and procedures. Consider seeking assistance from a tax professional, such as a certified public accountant (CPA) or enrolled agent. 

These people have the knowledge and experience to help you understand your options and negotiate with the IRS or state tax agency on your behalf. While professional assistance may come at a cost, it can ultimately save you time, money, and stress in the long run.

Final Thoughts

Getting tax debt relief entails careful consideration and strategic planning. By understanding the options available, including IRS programs and alternative avenues for relief, taxpayers can take proactive steps toward resolving their tax debt and achieving financial stability. 

Whether through installment agreements, offers in compromise, or other relief mechanisms, exploring available options is key to resolving tax debt and achieving peace of mind. If you’re unsure where to start, contact a qualified tax professional for guidance and support.

DISCLAIMER: The above material has been prepared for informational purposes only, containing opinions of the provider, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, tax, legal, or accounting advice. Please consider consulting tax, legal, and accounting advisors before engaging in any transaction.

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