Can’t Pay the IRS What You Owe? 4 Ways to Avoid Major Penalties

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The deadline for filing your 2017 tax returns is April 17, 2018. But what if you don’t have the cash to pay the IRS for the taxes you owe?

If you don’t pay, you’ll be charged hefty fines and penalties. However, taking a few steps now can help you avoid the fees and remain in good standing with the federal agency. “If you can’t pay your taxes when they’re due, be sure to deal with the problem head-on. Ignoring it will just make things worse,” said Mario Costanz, CEO of Happy Tax.

Here are four actions you can take today if you can’t pay what you owe to the IRS.

1. Ask for an extension

If you can prove that paying your taxes would be a serious burden, the IRS might give you extra time to pay. “If you’re dealing with a financial hardship, the IRS will usually work with you,” Costanz said.

You can request a payment extension by submitting IRS Form 1127. This is different from requesting extra time to file your taxes, which allows a delay only in submitting paperwork.

When you submit Form 1127, you must explain why paying your taxes on time would cause undue hardship. As the IRS says, simply being inconvenienced isn’t enough to qualify for an extension on the payment deadline. You must prove that paying on time would cause a significant financial loss, such as being forced to sell a property for below-market value.

You’ll need to submit a statement detailing your assets and liabilities as well as an itemized list of income and expenses. But if you can make your case, you could save a lot of money. “If you qualify, you may be able to get extra time to pay your tax bill before the IRS starts imposing penalties and fees,” said Costanz.

When you submit your request for an extension, you can specify how much extra time you need to pay your taxes (though extensions of more than six months usually aren’t granted). You’ll owe interest on the taxes from the date they were due, but if you’re granted an extension, you won’t pay any penalties.

2. Enter into a payment plan with the IRS

If you can’t get a payment extension, the IRS might offer help in the form of a payment plan. Some of these plans include:

  • A short-term plan lasting up to 120 days. There are no fees to set up this plan, but you’ll incur penalties and interest until the balance is paid in full. You can make payments via check, money order, debit or credit card, or automatic withdrawals from your bank account. Extra fees might apply if you pay by card.
  • Installment agreements lasting more than 120 days, with payments made through automatic withdrawals. This plan costs $31 to set up if you apply online or $107 if you apply by phone, mail, or in person. (Qualifying low-income taxpayers could be charged a reduced $43 fee for phone, mail, or in-person setup.) The IRS will establish a minimum monthly payment based on what you owe, including fees and interest, with automatic withdrawals from your checking account.
  • Installment agreements lasting more than 120 days, without an autopay option. There’s a $149 setup fee if you apply online or a $225 setup fee for in-person, mail, and phone applications. (Low-income applicants can pay a reduced $43 fee for any method.) Minimum monthly payments are calculated based on outstanding tax debt, with fees and interest tacked on.

Not everyone is eligible for payment plans. “You must be up to date on your taxes before the IRS will be willing to consider a repayment plan,” said Joshua Zimmelman, president of Westwood Tax & Consulting LLC. “If you haven’t filed all of your past returns, this isn’t an option for you, and you’ll have to finish that first before they’re willing to work with you.”

Even if you meet the qualifying criteria, however, don’t assume a payment plan is the best choice. There are pros and cons to consider.

“The biggest advantage to entering into an installment agreement is that it suspends collection activity,” said Matthew T. Eyet, a tax lawyer and partner at Sandelands Eyet LLP. “So long as a taxpayer has an installment agreement in place, the IRS is prohibited from garnishing the taxpayer’s wages and levying the taxpayer’s bank and retirement accounts.”

Penalties and interest continue to accrue, even while your payment plan is in place, Eyet said. However, for the months during which the agreement is in effect, the IRS’ standard 0.50% failure-to-pay monthly penalty is reduced to 0.25%.

You’ll also want to be sure you can afford the minimum payments the IRS requests. “As with any debt, you want to remain current with your payment arrangements,” said tax professional and enrolled agent LuSundra G. Everett. “Otherwise, the IRS can cancel your payment plan and demand the entire amount due immediately.”

To make repayment a little easier, Everett recommends increasing your withholding next year so you’ll end up with a tax refund you can apply to your outstanding debt.

3. Pay your taxes using a credit card

IRS payment plans aren’t your only choice. “You might consider paying with a credit card,” Zimmelman said. “Even though you’ll end up paying interest charges on your credit card balance, depending on your rate, that might still be cheaper than paying the IRS’ fines and interest charges.”

Paying with a credit card could be the most cost-effective option if you have a low-interest credit card or a card offering a 0% introductory interest rate. But you also need to factor in the fees associated with paying taxes with a card.

“There are several card-processing companies that you can use to pay your taxes with a credit card,” Zimmelman said.

Find a list of these companies on the IRS website. As of March 2018, the fees for using a credit card to pay taxes range from 1.87% to 1.99%.

4. Take out a personal loan

Personal loans are offered by banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Each lender sets its own qualifying requirements, range of interest rates, and loan terms. You often can borrow money with a personal loan for a cost that’s less than carrying a balance on a credit card.

Unlike credit cards, which don’t have a set repayment schedule, personal loans typically must be repaid over a designated period of time. These loans generally have multiyear repayment terms, making them a good option for repaying a large tax debt.

Many lenders offer personal loans without charging an origination fee, but interest rates vary and will be determined by your credit score and income. Comparison shop among lenders to find out how much it will cost you to borrow money and whether monthly payments will be affordable.

You can find different lenders in our personal loan marketplace and get prequalified before going through the full application process.

Whatever you do, file your taxes on time

Whichever payment option you choose, there’s one thing you should absolutely never do: decline to submit your tax forms to the IRS on time.

“One of the biggest mistakes taxpayers make is the conscious decision to not file a tax return because of a lack of funds,” Eyet said. “Under the federal tax code — and nearly every state tax code — the penalties for not filing the return are far more severe than the penalties for not paying.”

While the federal failure-to-pay penalty is 0.5% per month, the penalty for failure to file is a whopping 5% per month. Not filing your returns on time also makes you ineligible for IRS repayment arrangements, closing off a key option.

“Bottom line is it’s almost always best to file on time and deal with any unpaid liability later,” Eyet said.

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Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality and will make a positive impact in your life. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print understand what you are buying, and consult a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time. Please do your homework and let us know if you have any questions or concerns.