If you owe federal income tax and can’t pay in full, the IRS Fresh Start program can help you get caught up. Fresh Start was established by the federal government in 2011 to offer some relief to taxpayers and curb predatory practices by the IRS. Under the Fresh Start Initiative, eligible taxpayers can enroll in a payment plan to clear their tax debt or negotiate an agreement to pay less than what’s owed. Either one could help you get back on track financially if you have an outstanding tax bill. You can also talk to a financial advisor about how to manage your tax liability going forward.
Understanding IRS Fresh Start
The IRS Fresh Start program or Fresh Start initiative was established in 2011 to help eligible taxpayers manage past-due tax debts. The program is designed to aid people who don’t have a prior history of unpaid taxes and aren’t subject to a federal tax lien.
Fresh Start offers help in one of four ways:
- Payment plans
- Offers in compromise
- Currently not collectible status
- Penalty abatements
The main goal of the Fresh Start program is to help individuals and business owners resolve their federal tax debt, without being unfairly penalized by the IRS. That includes allowing taxpayers who might otherwise be subject to a tax lien to avoid that scenario.
IRS Fresh Start Tax Relief Options
As mentioned, there are four avenues taxpayers can use to get tax relief through the Fresh Start initiative. Each one is designed to meet a different type of need.
If you’re interested in seeking tax relief through Fresh Start, here’s how the options compare.
- Payment plans: The IRS offers short- and long-term payment plans, also referred to as installment agreements, to eligible taxpayers. Short-term plans must be paid in full within 180 days while long-term plans may allow you up to 84 months to repay tax debt, depending on how much you owe.
- Offer in compromise: An offer in compromise allows you to repay tax debt for less than what you owe. You must be able to prove a financial hardship that prevents you from paying what you owe in full. If approved, you’d need to be able to pay the IRS an agreed-upon amount to settle your tax debt in a series of periodic payments.
- Currently not collectible status: Currently not collectible status allows you to claim financial hardship and temporarily pause your obligations to repay your tax debt. While your account is marked as currently not collectible, the IRS cannot take any collection actions against you and must halt any levies, including bank account levies and tax refund offsets.
- Penalty abatement: When you fail to pay taxes on time, penalties and interest can accrue. Penalty abatement allows you to get some relief from penalties if you owe a significant amount of tax debt.
Who Qualifies for IRS Fresh Start Relief?
Generally speaking, you may qualify for help through the Fresh Start program if you:
- Owe federal income tax
- Don’t have a history of unpaid taxes
- Are not yet subject to a federal tax lien
- Cannot pay your tax bill in full
If you’re specifically interested in a payment plan, your ability to qualify can depend on how much you owe. You may qualify to apply online for a long-term payment plan if you owe $50,000 or less in combined tax, penalties and interest, or for a short-term plan if you owe $100,000 or less. Business owners can apply online for a long-term payment plan if they’ve filed their tax return and owe $25,000 or less in combined tax, penalties and interest.
The IRS approves Offers in Compromise on a case-by-case basis. To apply, you’ll need to have filed all required tax returns and made the required estimated payments. You can’t be in a bankruptcy proceeding and you must have filed a valid tax extension. Approval is based on your:
- Ability to pay
- Asset equity
The IRS encourages taxpayers to explore payment plan options before applying for an Offer in Compromise.
You’ll need to contact the IRS to apply for currently not collectible status if you’re experiencing a significant financial hardship. The IRS may ask you to file any past-due tax returns if you haven’t done so and you’ll likely need to provide documentation proving your hardship situation. Late payment penalties and interest will continue to accrue on your account.
If you receive an IRS notice for back taxes, the notice may include instructions on how to apply for penalty abatement. You’ll need to call the IRS and provide some information to the IRS about your taxes and financial situation. You can also submit Form 843, Claim for Refund and Request for Abatement if you’re not able to call.
IRS Fresh Start Advantages and Disadvantages
The Fresh Start program is designed to offer some benefits to people who are dealing with unpaid tax debt. Specifically, this program can help you to avoid:
- IRS levies
- Federal tax liens
- Wage garnishments
- Criminal penalties
Once you qualify for Fresh Start relief through a payment plan or Offer in Compromise, you’re automatically sheltered from those types of outcomes since you’re making an effort to resolve your debt with the IRS.
Claiming currently not collectible status can also create some breathing room financially if you’re experiencing an extreme hardship that leaves you unable to pay what you owe. Penalty abatement, meanwhile, can reduce some of what you owe in penalties to the IRS.
Fresh Start is not a perfect solution, however. If you enroll in a payment plan, then penalties and interest will continue to accrue until the balance is paid in full. So, the total paid can exceed more than your actual tax balance due.
If you’re interested in an Offer in Compromise, it’s also important to keep in mind that getting approved can be challenging. The IRS wants to collect as much of your unpaid tax debt as possible. If you’re unable to provide sufficient proof of a hardship that keeps you from paying in full, you may be denied. In that case, you’d have to reconsider a short- or long-term payment plan.
The Bottom Line
IRS Fresh Start can help you get out of a tax debt hole if you owe money to the federal government. If you also owe state income tax, you’d need to reach out to your state tax authority to discuss repayment options. The most important thing to remember if you owe taxes is that some action is better than none since your obligation to pay won’t go away.
Tax Planning Tips
- Staying on top of your tax situation can help you avoid being hit with a surprise bill when it’s time to file your return. Talking to a financial advisor about how to minimize your tax liability can ensure that you’re paying enough to stay in favor with the IRS, without paying more than you need to. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
- The simplest way to avoid IRS tax penalties and interest is to pay what you owe by the filing deadline. If you don’t have cash readily available to pay, you might consider getting a personal loan to pay instead.
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