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5 Things You Shouldn't Do If You Owe the IRS at Tax Time

While everyone hopes to come out even or get some money back when they file their taxes each year, sometimes people do end up owing money — and there is a smart way to go about dealing with that. Owing any amount of money to the IRS – large or small – is a scary prospect. And ignoring the debt won’t make it go away any faster. If you’ve completed your income tax return for the tax year and you’re looking at a huge tax bill, it’s best to take care of it right away. A financial advisor can help you figure out what to do with your taxes. Here’s a look at what you don’t want to do if you’re trying to avoid making the situation worse in the long run. 

Owing the IRS Mistake #1: Not Filing a Return

If you owe taxes and you can’t afford to pay, you may think that the best thing to do is just not file a return at all. But that’s not a good idea. When you don’t file your return on time, the IRS automatically tacks on a 5% failure to file penalty for every month you owe taxes, up to a maximum of 25%. On top of that, you’ll also pay interest on the bill until you pay it in full.

Owing the IRS Mistake #2: Not Filing an Extension

Requesting an extension gives you an additional six months to get your return completed. If you file an extension request before the April tax deadline (for tax year 2019, the extended deadline was July 15, 2020), you won’t have to worry about the failure to file penalty. You will, however, still owe a failure to pay penalty on any outstanding taxes, which comes to 0.5% of the balance. This penalty is also capped at 25%.

Owing the IRS Mistake #3: Not Setting up a Payment Plan

5 Things You Shouldn't Do If You Owe the IRS at Tax Time

The IRS really doesn’t want to have to come after you to get the money you owe. To make it easier for taxpayers to pay up, Uncle Sam offers payment plans. If you owe taxes and you can’t pay, it’s a good idea to find out whether you qualify for an installment plan. You may be eligible for an online payment plan if you owe the IRS less than $50,000 in income taxes, penalties and interest. If you fit that criteria, you can apply for a payment agreement online. Otherwise, you’ll need to fill out Form 9465 and mail it to your local IRS office to see what kind of plan you qualify for.

The IRS gives eligible taxpayers up to 72 months to get their tax debt paid in full. Keep in mind that interest and penalties will continue to pile up until the balance is paid off. If you’re owed a refund in any subsequent tax years while you’re on the plan, the IRS can apply those to what you owe.

Owing the IRS Mistake #4: Ignoring the Consequences

Aside from the penalties and the interest, there are other things the IRS can do to make you regret skipping out on paying your taxes. Your passport could be canceled, for example, which can throw a wrench in your travel plans. In the worst case scenario, the IRS could place a lien against your property or garnish your wages. Knowing what’s at stake can motivate you to pay up.

Owing the IRS Mistake #5: Choosing the Wrong Way to Pay

5 Things You Shouldn't Do If You Owe the IRS at Tax Time

If you don’t have enough cash to cover your tax bill, you might be thinking about taking on more debt to do it. Depending on your situation, that could mean borrowing against your home equity, taking out a personal loan or charging it all to a credit card. The one thing you don’t want to do is make your decision in a rush. It’s a good idea to take the time to compare interest rates, fees and repayment terms for each option so you’ll know exactly what borrowing to pay your taxes is going to cost you.

Bottom Line

Paying taxes is never pleasant, especially when you aren’t expecting to get hit with a bill you can’t afford. Facing it head-on instead of sticking your head in the sand is the best approach if you don’t want to get in even deeper trouble with the IRS. Just make sure you address the problem right away and figure out a way to make it right quickly, rather than waiting and letting it get worse.

Tax Tips

  • For help with taxes and any other manner of financial questions, consider working with a financial advisor. SmartAsset’s free tool connects you with financial advisors in your area in five minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors, get started now.
  • Advance knowledge is always a good idea when it comes to owing taxes. Use SmartAsset’s tax return calculator to see how much you will owe or be owed based on your personal finances, and you can start to plan from there.
  • If you plan to itemize, make sure to keep all your receipts at least a few years after you file. It isn’t uncommon for the IRS to look at returns from three to six years prior to the return they are actually auditing. And depending on which deductions you take, like the home office deduction, your return may be more likely to trigger an audit.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/CreativaImages, ©iStock.com/bernie_moto, ©iStock.com/Danchenko

Rebecca Lake Rebecca Lake is a retirement, investing and estate planning expert who has been writing about personal finance for a decade. Her expertise in the finance niche also extends to home buying, credit cards, banking and small business. She's worked directly with several major financial and insurance brands, including Citibank, Discover and AIG and her writing has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, CreditCards.com and Investopedia. Rebecca is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and she also attended Charleston Southern University as a graduate student. Originally from central Virginia, she now lives on the North Carolina coast along with her two children.
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