April 15 is the normal deadline for not only filing, but also paying your income taxes. However, that date was pushed back this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, and now the revised July 15 deadline is right around the corner. So it’s time to get your taxes in order if you haven’t already done them.
You can use one of the major tax software programs to file your return, and if you have a simple tax situation, you can probably even do it for free. But what about actually paying your taxes, if you don’t have the cash today to pay taxes you owe on your income from last year? Do you have any options if you can’t pay your bill?
Actually, yes — there are three. And while each one has pluses and minuses, all of them are better choices than simply ignoring your taxes, which will result in the Internal Revenue Service and your state tax authority adding penalties and interest to the amount you already owe, and could lead to even more unpleasantries down the line.
So if you’re staring down either a federal or state tax bill on July 15 that you can’t pay right away, consider which of these three options will work best for you.
The IRS, along with a number of state tax authorities, is open to letting you pay your taxes over time if you can’t pay your tax bill in full. “The IRS offers short-term (paying in 120 days or less) or long-term payment plans, typically referred to as installment agreements,” explained Darrell Groves, managing director of the accounting firm DWG CPA and president of the Houston chapter of the Texas Society of Certified Public Accountants.
“Generally, the maximum term for an installment agreement is 72 months, but it could be longer, depending upon certain circumstances such as the inability to pay due to unemployment,” he said. State plans vary depending on the rules of your state tax authority.
The cost of the IRS plans, as well as the minimum monthly payment, depends on the length of the plan, how much you owe and whether you’re willing to allow automatic withdrawals of your monthly payments. But if your balance due is less than $10,000, as long as you pledge to pay it off within three years, you can choose your own monthly payment amount.
You can apply for an installment plan by phone, mail or in person, but the fees are lower if you’re eligible to apply online at the IRS website. “I recommend applying online right now as you may see delays when mailing an application or applying via phone right now,” suggested Lisa Greene-Lewis, a certified public accountant and tax expert for TurboTax.
“You can apply online for a short-term agreement as long as you owe less than $100,000 in combined tax, penalties and interest,” Greene-Lewis explained. And “you can apply online for a long-term agreement as long as you owe $50,000 or less in combined tax, penalties, and interest and filed all required tax returns.”
Just be aware that if the amount you owe is more than $25,000, you’ll likely need to provide additional information about your income and expenses to get your payment plan approved. The IRS may also place a federal tax lien on your assets for higher amounts.
Unfortunately, an IRS payment plan won’t prevent you from accruing penalties and interest on the amount you owe, but it does lower the penalties by half. It will also keep the IRS from coming after you for the money by having your wages garnished or other collection actions. Also, while you’re on a payment plan for one tax year, you can’t get a refund for other tax years — the IRS will automatically take any refund and apply it to what you owe.
An IRS payment plan won’t save you much money, but it will give you peace of mind knowing that your tax situation is at least under control and that you’re in good standing with the IRS.
If you’d prefer not to be on the hook to the IRS, another option is to put your taxes on a credit card. The IRS and many states allow you to pay your taxes with a card, though you’ll need to check with your specific state to see if it allows credit card payments.
When it comes to federal taxes and the IRS, the agency currently uses three private third-party payment companies to process credit card payments, and each one has slightly different fees.
Since all three processors work the same way, there’s no reason not to use the cheapest one. But that means that, as of this writing, you’d have to pay a 1.87% fee to use your credit card. So if you owe $2,000 in taxes, that’s an additional $37.40 in fees.
That may not sound like much, and it’s likely less than you’d owe in penalties for being late. But once the balance is on your credit card, if you’re not able to pay it in full right away, you’ll start accruing credit card interest on the debt, which can be much higher than the interest the IRS charges for its payment plans.
However, there’s a potential way around this. Once the balance is on your credit card, you could apply for a new credit card that offers an introductory balance transfer offer. If you’re approved for the new card, you can transfer your tax balance over to it and pay 0% interest on it for the next 12 to 21 months, depending on the card. Check out CNN Underscored’s guide to the best balance transfer cards of 2020 to see our picks.
The danger of this approach is that if you can’t get approved for a new credit card due to your credit score or lack of income, you’ll be stuck paying sky-high interest on the balance. So if you’re considering this path, you should probably apply for the new balance transfer credit card first and see if you get approved. If you do, you generally have at least 60 days to make a transfer, and if you don’t, you’ll still have the option to apply for an IRS payment plan.
Many people don’t realize that the IRS, and a number of state tax agencies, are sometimes open to making an agreement to accept less money than you owe. This is known as an “offer in compromise” and it has the advantage over the other two options of actually cutting down your tax bill instead of just stringing out the payments.
An offer in compromise starts just the way it sounds: You make the IRS an offer. Specifically, you offer to pay the IRS a specific amount right now that’s less than what you owe, if the agency will forgive the rest. The IRS will then consider your offer and let you know if it’s accepted or rejected.
However, the IRS notes that only a certain subset of people will be able to qualify for an offer in compromise. Generally, the agency will consider an offer in compromise in three types of tax situations:
- There’s a genuine dispute between you and the IRS about how much you owe.
- The IRS believes it will be unable to collect your taxes from you because your assets and income are less than the amount you owe.
- Paying the full tax amount would create an economic hardship, or would be unfair and inequitable because of exceptional circumstances.
In other words, while an offer in compromise might be an option if you’ve been laid off and have no current income, you need to be in a situation where you can’t even make a payment plan work in order for your offer to be considered. And even if you do qualify under one of these criteria, the IRS doesn’t have to accept your offer.
“The IRS Data Book of 2019 indicated roughly 33% of the 54,225 offer-in-compromise (OIC) applications received were accepted,” said Groves. “This is a mere fraction of the 11 million plus taxpayers with outstanding balances due for which delinquent collection activities were underway in 2019.”
If you’re considering submitting an offer in compromise, Groves suggests using the agency’s Offer in Compromise Pre-Qualifier tool to see if you’re eligible. And if the amount you owe in taxes is large, you may want to consider getting an experienced tax attorney or accountant to work with you on crafting an appropriate offer, though you should watch out for scam companies without a proven track record.
Regardless of which of these three options you decide to pursue, do not miss the July 15 deadline to actually file your 2019 return if you haven’t already. Even if you can’t pay, there’s absolutely no advantage to not filing, and you’ll end up with additional penalties if you don’t.
“Taxpayers who still need to file their taxes and are worried about owing should still go online and file,” advised Greene-Lewis. “They may be surprised at the tax deductions and credits they are eligible for once they go online and start their taxes.”
And if you don’t currently have the money to pay your taxes, don’t panic. You aren’t the only one, especially in this climate. Your best bet is to take advantage of one of the above payment options, or just get in touch with the IRS and let them know your situation.
“It is critical to contact the IRS as soon as you know that you will not be able to pay your tax liability and to maintain contact periodically (at least annually) to update your status,” said Groves. “Maintaining communications reduces the risk that the IRS will employ collection actions such as tax levies and liens to protect their interests.”
Finally, if you reach out for help, make sure you’re dealing with a legitimate tax professional. If your balance is small, you can probably deal with the IRS on your own, but if your tax bill is large enough that it warrants having assistance, be wary of companies that charge thousands of dollars and promise the world. If what they’re offering sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Having money issues due to the coronavirus pandemic? Read CNN Underscored’s previous stories in this series: