Author: Todd Wydeven

How Long Before the IRS Catches On?

While the IRS will initiate the process of collections almost immediately after a tax return with a balance is filed, its level of aggression varies widely from case to case.  Yet, the IRS has a ten-year statute of limitations to collect any federal tax debt.  This statute of limitations begins from when the tax is assessed and can be extended due to additional tax assessments or bankruptcy or other legal action.  Additionally, the IRS has three years to audit any given tax return.  However, if the IRS deems a return fraudulent there is no such statute of limitations for audit or collections, effectively the statute of limitations becomes infinite.  Again, not all cases are viewed equally within the eyes of the IRS.  Businesses are typically on a much shorter leash than are individuals.

The IRS will begin the process of collections with a simple, “Notice and Demand” for payment letter.  These letters are typically issued about 30 days after a delinquent tax return has been filed. If the IRS receives no response to its initial request for payment within the timeframe allotted in the letter, it will proceed with increasingly aggressive correspondence. After the timeframe to respond has elapsed the IRS will issue a CP504 notice, “Intent to Seize Property or Rights to Property.”  This is the IRS’s preliminary threat to enforce collections of a debt.  If it again receives no response, it will elevate its aggression and file a federal lien and/or provide a “Final Notice of Intent to Levy.”  After a Final Notice of Intent to Levy has been issued a taxpayer has 30 days to respond before the IRS can legally take this action.  After 30 days has elapsed and the taxpayer has not taken corrective action or requested an appeals hearing, the IRS can levy at any time.  This entire process can take as little as three months, but can take much longer. 

For individual taxpayers, most of these notices will be computer-generated and most cases that are below $250,000 in total tax debt will remain with the IRS’s Automated Collections Department (ACS).  This means to speak with any IRS personnel a taxpayer will need to contact ACS at their toll-free line and bear through long hold times to discuss case specific options for resolution with IRS representatives standing by in a call center.  The IRS typically will not contact an individual taxpayer directly or by phone unless they are flagged for audit or the liability exceeds the $250,000 benchmark.  There are certainly exceptions to this for prolonged periods of delinquency or for “pyramiding” taxpayers.

For most businesses and particularly with regard to employment tax, the IRS will elevate the level of collections much more rapidly.  Any employment tax liability that exceeds $25,000 will require a field agent to be assigned for resolution of the account.  Employment taxes are considered to be held in a trust by the employer and are used to pay employee’s income tax as well as funding both Social Security and Medicare. Because of this, the IRS pursues this tax type much more aggressively than other tax types.  Due to tremendous shortfalls in financing for these entitlement programs, the IRS is ever increasing its effort to connect with business owners who fall short on their employment tax obligations as quickly as possible.

Can I Receive a Tax Refund?

You may be wondering whether or not you can receive a tax refund if you are currently making payments under an Installment Agreement or Payment Plan for a prior year’s federal taxes.

The short answer is simply, no.

All taxpayers are entitled to make a claim for a refund of overpaid taxes within the prior three years. However, in instances where there is a past balance, the IRS will confiscate any refund due and apply it towards a taxpayer’s oldest liability period before remitting any excess portion of the overpayment back to the taxpayer.  Even in cases where a taxpayer has entered into a formal payment arrangement, the IRS will offset any refund due and apply it towards the liability. The federal government will pursue all available options to ensure that it is paid for any delinquencies as expeditiously as possible.  The same holds true for many other types of federal debt the most common being delinquent student loan debt.

This is also why the Internal Revenue Service issues tax liens and assesses interest and penalties.  These are all mechanisms the IRS utilizes to ensure repayment of a tax and encourage “voluntary compliance” amongst taxpayers.  When the IRS grants payment arrangements they take into consideration all allowable household expenses and net that amount against the gross household income. Any excess income, beyond the amounts that are considered necessary living expenditures, the IRS expects to be remitted in the form of structured monthly payments.  One of those expenses being considered is income tax withholding.  If income taxes were taken into consideration as a qualified monthly expense, but there is in fact excess withholding, the IRS would assume that that amount should have been reduced when formulating the initial installment agreement terms anyway. Therefore, the IRS will confiscate the excess withholding in the form of a tax refund offset.

The best method for avoiding this pitfall is to seek the counsel of a qualified tax professional shortly after accruing a tax liability with the Internal Revenue Service.  This is especially crucial in instances where a taxpayer may have received or is due a large federal tax refund.  Careful tax planning in the current year can ensure that tax debtors minimize or altogether eliminate a tax refund that would ultimately be confiscated the following year.

For wage earners (those that receive a form W-2 at the end of the year) this can be as simple as adjusting the exemptions reported to their employer on form W-4.  All taxpayers are allowed to claim up to nine exemptions without providing any proof that they qualify.  This will severely reduce the amount of income tax withholding that an employer deducts from each paycheck and ultimately any refund due at the end of the tax year.  For self-employed individuals, taking a little extra time each week to maintain careful bookkeeping records will allow them the ability to consistently track current year tax obligations so that they aren’t in danger of over or under paying when making estimated tax deposits.