If you have tax debt, here are 5 tips to set things right with the IRS

Death and taxes … you know what the deal is. You can’t avoid either of them.

If you have a big tax bill that you can’t pay, life can seem pretty bleak.

While the number of tax liens annually filed by the IRS against taxpayers has fallen by more than 50 percent since 2010, there were more than 14 million open tax-debt cases against individuals and businesses heading into 2018, according to the IRS data book.

Despite one of the longest-running economic expansions on record over the last decade, millions of Americans continue to struggle to pay their taxes.

If you’re in that boat, however, it is not the end of the world. There are steps you can take to reduce the impact of unpaid taxes on your life, credit and financial well-being. Here are five tips to lessen that burden.

Tip 1: Don’t ignore the problem. The IRS will not. Even if you can’t pay what you owe, file your return on time or, if that’s not possible, file for an extension. The late filing penalty is 5 percent of the tax owed per month up to a maximum of 25 percent of the balance. There is also an underpayment penalty of 0.5 percent to 1 percent per month of the balance owed, also up to 25 percent. If you don’t file your return or make any payment on your obligation, your tax debt will grow rapidly.

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“The IRS is unlike any other creditor,” said John Heath, directing attorney for Lexington Law, which provides credit repair services for individuals. “When you consider the penalties involved, they can far outstrip the interest rate you pay on your credit card.

“The IRS should be first on your list to pay if you have issues with other creditors.”

Tip 2: Be realistic about your situation. The IRS rarely forgives tax debts. Form 656 is the application for an “offer in compromise” to settle your tax liability for less than what you owe. Such deals are only given to people experiencing true financial hardship. If you or your family have had catastrophic health-care expenses or you’ve lost your job and have poor prospects for generating income in the future, you may qualify. It doesn’t happen often.

“Tax forgiveness is intended for people truly struggling with a tax burden,” said Miron Lulic, CEO of SuperMoney, a financial services comparison website for consumers. “People have to be realistic with themselves.

“If you have assets and are making significant income, you won’t get tax relief.”

Tip 3: Owe less than $10,000? Handle it yourself. How big is the balance? If it’s less than $10,000, you’re probably capable of handling the matter yourself rather than paying someone to help you deal with the IRS. Form 9465, the IRS application for an installment payment plan, can be filed online. The service will automatically agree to such a plan for any taxpayer who owes less than $10,000. The plans typically allow you to pay off the balance owed plus penalties and interest over a 36-month period.

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