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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, July 20, 2006

Negotiating a compromise with the IRS is going to get a lot harder

By Michelle Singletary

A new law is going to make it tougher for you to step forward and negotiate your debt with the Internal Revenue Service.

Taxpayers who feel they absolutely cannot pay their full assessment can still ask for a tax break. Specifically, this is done through a process called an "offer in compromise," or OIC. An offer in compromise allows the IRS to accept less than the full tax payment under certain circumstances.

It used to be you filled out a form and paid a $150 fee to start the OIC process going, which didn't guarantee anything other than the IRS would consider your offer.

Under the Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005, taxpayers making a lump-sum offer in compromise must now make a 20 percent nonrefundable, up-front payment in many cases. Typically, with a lump-sum offer, you pay off your reduced tax debt in five or fewer installments.

One thing that hasn't changed the criteria for accepting an offer are strict. If you're experiencing some unusual economic hardship, you may qualify for an OIC. But mind you, an OIC is extremely hard to get approved. Among other things, you have to provide detailed financial information to prove your economic status, and you have to exhaust all other payment options.

One such payment option is an installment agreement, which allows you to pay your full tax obligation in monthly payments. In 2005, 2.6 million taxpayers paid their tax bills in monthly payments, according to the IRS.

Last year, the IRS received 74,000 offers in compromise. Only 19,000 were accepted, resulting in a tax collection of more than $325.6 million, according to IRS spokesman Jim Dupree.

While I'm discussing this, please be careful about promises from any company guaranteeing it can significantly reduce your tax debt for pennies on the dollar. For example, I got this e-mail from a reader who asked: "Can you tell me about the firms advertising that they can get the IRS to do away with the interest and penalties? Can they really do this? If they can, why can't the person needing help do the same?"

Can they do this? Refer back to the previous data for compromise offers. And yes, you can try to settle this issue on your own, either through an OIC or an installment agreement. But if you're afraid you can't handle this on your own, hire a professional with years of experience working with the IRS.

There is some good news about changes in the OIC program. If the IRS doesn't make a ruling on your compromise offer within two years, then the offer will be deemed accepted. However, if some of the tax owed is tied up in any court proceeding, the two-year rule doesn't apply.

Additionally, under the new law, taxpayers qualifying as low-income don't have to put up the 20 percent payment.

To start the OIC process, you have to submit Form 656 "Offer in Compromise" and the application fee of $150. The form provides detailed instructions for completing an offer and includes all of the necessary financial forms. Don't skip a single step.

A new version of Form 656, revised to reflect the new law, will be posted on IRS.gov in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, taxpayers may continue to use the 2004 version of the form, according to the IRS.

In a report to Congress, Nina E. Olson, who holds the title of national taxpayer advocate, said this change in the OIC program will reduce the number of viable offers the IRS receives, increase the number of accounts not resolved and reduce the amount of revenue collected.

In fact, if you've been having trouble settling your tax debt or other IRS issues, contact the Taxpayer Advocate Service, which helps individual and business taxpayers resolve problems with the IRS. It's an independent organization within the IRS led by the national taxpayer advocate. For more information, call toll-free (877) 777-4778 or for TTY/TTD (800) 829-4059. Each state has at least one local taxpayer advocate, who is independent of the local IRS office.

Even though it's tough to settle a past-due tax debt, at least try. Doing nothing will only make things worse when the IRS finally catches up to you.