Tax Season: 35% of Americans Who Owe Can’t Pay The Bill

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Faced with a tax bill they can’t afford, 35% of taxpayers find themselves in a financial bind. The IRS acknowledges this challenge by offering an IRS Payment Plan Online through its Online Payment Agreement Application, a secure and manageable way for individuals to meet their tax obligations without further financial strain. This lifeline allows taxpayers to file on time and minimize penalties and interest by paying what they can, providing a structured path to settling outstanding taxes. This is Tax Season: 35% of Americans Who Owe Can’t Pay The Tax Bill.

Navigating tax season can be daunting, especially when faced with a tax debt that seems insurmountable. The IRS Payment Plan Online serves as a beacon of hope, offering various payment plans and assistance programs tailored to diverse financial situations. This article will explore the intricacies of managing tax debt, effective strategies for prevention, and the impact on financial wellness, thereby guiding taxpayers toward a more secure financial future.

The Plight of the 35%

In 2020, the landscape of American taxpayers revealed significant disparities in income and the resulting tax obligations, painting a vivid picture of the financial challenges many face. Delving into the specifics:

  • Low Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) Filers:
    • 5.3 million individual tax returns reported no AGI, highlighting a segment of the population with no taxable income. This starkly underscores the financial realities that lead to a lack of taxable earnings.
    • Approximately 60.3 million returns showcased AGIs of less than $30,000. These filers faced an average effective tax rate of merely 1.5%, reflecting the progressive nature of the U.S. tax system aimed at alleviating the tax burden on lower-income earners.
  • Refundable Tax Credits:
    • Taxpayers with AGIs below $30,000 benefited significantly from refundable tax credits, collectively receiving over $78.6 billion from the IRS in 2020. This influx of funds through tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit represents a crucial financial lifeline for millions, reinforcing the role of the tax system in supporting low-income families.
  • Trends in Effective Tax Rates:
    • An analysis of tax trends since 2000 reveals a downward trajectory in average effective tax rates for all income brackets except the highest earners (those with AGIs of $10 million or more). This trend underscores the shifting tax burdens and the impact of various tax cuts and policy changes over the years, aimed at reducing the tax load for the majority while ensuring the wealthiest contribute their fair share.

These statistics not only illuminate the financial plight of a significant portion of American taxpayers but also underscore the importance of IRS payment plans and assistance programs. For those grappling with tax debt, understanding these dynamics is the first step towards navigating their financial obligations and seeking relief through available avenues.

Understanding Tax Debt

In 2021, American taxpayers faced a daunting challenge as they failed to pay a record $688 billion in taxes. This shortfall is attributed to three primary factors:

  • Non-filing: Approximately $77 billion of the tax gap stems from individuals who do not file their taxes at all. There are a variety of potential causes for this, such as personal crises, filing process overwhelm, or purposeful avoidance.
  • Underreporting: The largest portion of the tax gap, $542 billion, is due to underreporting of income. This is often seen in cases where individuals are paid in cash and fail to report these earnings on their tax returns.
  • Underpayment: About $68 billion is attributed to underpayment of taxes, a situation common among freelancers or gig workers who might not accurately estimate their quarterly taxes or individuals who delay paying their tax dues.

Tax debt, the outstanding balance owed to the IRS, arises when these taxes are not paid in full or on time. The consequences of falling into tax debt are severe and can include:

  • Liens and Levies: The IRS can file a lien against a taxpayer’s property, claiming any income generated from it to settle the debt. In more extreme cases, a levy can be placed, leading to the seizure of property including homes, cars, bank accounts, and more, to satisfy the tax debt.
  • Interest and Penalties: Tax debt accrues interest, compounded daily, and penalties for non-compliance, such as failure to file or pay, inaccurate reporting, and underpayment of estimated taxes. These penalties vary based on the specific circumstances but can significantly increase the amount owed.

To address and resolve tax debt, the IRS offers several options, including:

  1. Filing or Correcting a Tax Return: Ensuring all income is accurately reported can reduce the amount of tax owed.
  2. Penalty Abatement: In some cases, penalties for late filing or payment can be reduced or removed.
  3. Installment Agreements: Taxpayers can arrange to pay their debt in monthly payments if they cannot afford a lump sum.
  4. Offers in Compromise: This option allows taxpayers to settle their tax debt for less than the full amount owed if they meet certain conditions.
  5. Statute of Limitations: There is a 10-year period, known as the Collection Statute Expiration Date (CSED), during which the IRS can collect unpaid taxes. After this period, the debt may be considered expired.

It’s crucial for taxpayers facing tax debt to understand these dynamics and explore all available avenues for resolution. Acting promptly and voluntarily can prevent the situation from escalating to liens or levies and potentially allow for more favorable terms in resolving the debt.

Payment Plans and Assistance Programs

To alleviate the burden of tax debt, the IRS has structured various payment plans and assistance programs, catering to a broad spectrum of financial situations. These plans are designed to provide a manageable pathway for taxpayers to settle their dues without exacerbating their financial strain.

Payment Plans:

  • Short-term Payment Plans:
    • Eligibility: Taxpayers owing less than $100,000 in total.
    • Duration: up to 180 days.
    • Benefits: No setup fee; a straightforward option for quickly resolving smaller tax debts.
  • Long-term Payment Plans (Installment Agreements):
    • Eligibility: individuals owing less than $50,000; businesses with $25,000 or less in tax debt.
    • Duration: up to 72 months.
    • Payment Options:
      1. Direct Debit (automatic monthly withdrawals from a checking account).
      2. Direct Pay (monthly payments from a checking or savings account).
      3. EFTPS (Electronic Federal Tax Payment System).
      4. Check, money order, or debit/credit card payments.
    • Fees vary based on the payment option chosen; reduced fees are for low-income taxpayers.
  • Non-streamlined Installment Agreements (NSIAs):
    • Eligibility: Those owing more than $50,000 but less than $250,000.
    • Features: tailored payment terms; requires more detailed financial disclosures.

Assistance Programs:

  • IRS Free File:
    • Eligibility: Individuals and families earning $79,000 or less in 2023.
    • Benefits: Free electronic tax filing to avoid penalties and interest for late filing.
  • Offer in Compromise (OIC):
    • Eligibility: Taxpayers are unable to pay the full tax amount due to financial hardship.
    • Features: Allows settlement for less than the total owed; waives the $205 application fee for low-income individuals.
  • Penalty Relief:
    • Availability: case-by-case basis, often for first-time noncompliance based on reasonable cause.
    • Programs: First-Time Abatement program for compliant taxpayers seeking relief from penalties.

To apply for these plans or programs, taxpayers should visit, prepared with a proposed monthly payment amount and due date that aligns with their financial capability, ensuring the total owed is paid off within the stipulated period. Direct debit is highly recommended for its convenience, security, and lower setup costs. For those considering personal loans to cover tax debts, most banks, credit unions, and lenders offer unsecured loans, subject to credit score requirements.

Impact of Tax Debt on Financial Wellness

Accumulating tax debt not only strains a business’s finances through penalties and interest charges but can also lead to severe legal actions, including asset seizure. For businesses, this financial burden is multifaceted:

  • Penalties and interest charges: These are not just monetary fines but indicators of financial distress that can deter potential investors and partners.
  • Legal Consequences: Beyond financial implications, there’s the threat of wage garnishment and asset seizure, stark reminders of the severe repercussions of ignoring tax obligations.

For individuals, the impact of tax debt extends beyond the immediate financial strain, affecting various aspects of personal and financial well-being.

  • Creditworthiness: Outstanding tax debt can significantly lower an individual’s credit score. This, in turn, affects their ability to secure loans or credit, with lenders viewing the tax debt as a red flag.
    • Impact on Loan Terms: Even if loans are approved, the terms are often less favorable, translating to higher interest rates or stricter repayment terms.
  • Mental and Emotional Well-Being: The stress of dealing with tax debt can lead to worry, anxiety, and sleep deprivation, further exacerbating the individual’s financial and emotional state.
    • Financial Stress: This can ripple out to affect the ability to meet other financial obligations, creating a cycle of debt and stress.

Tax authorities employ various mechanisms to recover outstanding debts, including but not limited to:

  • Collection Mechanisms:
    1. Wage Garnishment: A portion of the debtor’s salary is directed towards debt repayment.
    2. Bank Levies: direct seizure from bank accounts.
    3. Asset seizure: taking possession of physical assets to settle debts.

These mechanisms not only recover debts but also serve as a stark warning to individuals and businesses about the importance of fulfilling tax obligations promptly.

Tips for Managing and Preventing Tax Debt

Managing and preventing tax debt is crucial for maintaining financial wellness. Here are practical tips to help taxpayers stay ahead:

  1. Optimize Withholdings and Filings:
    • Utilize the IRS Tax Withholding Estimator to ensure the correct amount of tax is being withheld from your paycheck. Adjustments can prevent owing a large sum at the end of the tax year.
    • For those earning $79,000 or less in 2023, the IRS Free File service on offers an easy way to file taxes electronically for free, potentially avoiding late filing penalties.
    • Remember, filing for a six-month extension before April 15, 2024, can also help dodge penalties and interest for late submissions.
  2. Leverage tax-advantaged accounts and deductions:
    • Retirement Accounts: Contributions to traditional 401(k)s and IRAs reduce taxable income. The pre-tax contributions grow tax-deferred, lowering the current tax bill.
    • Health Accounts: Both Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs) offer tax-free contributions for qualified medical expenses, reducing taxable income.
    • Business Deductions: Self-employed individuals can claim deductions for business-related expenses, including vehicle mileage, office supplies, and health insurance premiums. Additionally, the home office deduction is available if the space is used exclusively for business purposes.
  3. Strategic Contributions and Investments:
    • Charitable Donations: Making charitable contributions can provide deductions. For retirees, donating the required minimum distributions from retirement accounts to charities can make the distribution tax-exempt.
    • Educational Investments: Contributing to a 529 Plan for education expenses offers tax-free withdrawals, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit provides a credit for the first four years of college.
    • Investment Strategies: Investing in municipal bonds offers federal tax-free interest, and understanding capital gains tax can lead to strategic decisions, like donating appreciated stock to avoid capital gains tax.

Incorporating these strategies requires a proactive approach to managing finances and an understanding of the tax implications of various decisions. Consulting a tax professional can provide personalized advice tailored to individual financial situations, ensuring that taxpayers can navigate their obligations effectively and minimize their tax burden.

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Throughout this comprehensive discussion on navigating the challenges of tax bills, we’ve delved into the intricacies of the U.S. tax system, its implications for individuals across various income brackets, and the respite offered by IRS payment plans. From understanding the plight of those unable to afford their tax obligations to exploring viable strategies for managing and preventing tax debt, the article encapsulates the essential components of financial wellness in the context of taxation. Notably, the discussion underscores the role of structured IRS payment plans in mitigating financial strain, emphasizing the importance of timely action and informed decision-making to uphold one’s financial and legal obligations to the federal government.

As we reflect on the broader implications of these insights, it’s apparent that the journey toward financial stability is intricately tied to a sound understanding of one’s tax responsibilities and available avenues for compliance. Leveraging tools like the IRS Payment Plan Online can significantly ease the burden for those caught in the web of tax debt, offering a structured path to financial recovery. Furthermore, the exploration of tax dynamics, from deductions and credits to the progressive nature of tax brackets, reinforces the criticality of informed financial planning across all stages of life. As we navigate tax season and beyond, let’s commit to proactive financial management, taking strides toward a more secure financial future while ensuring our fair share of contributions to the collective good of our society. 

When it comes to tax management, especially for married taxpayers, speaking with a qualified tax preparer can provide insightful advice on how to handle local income taxes. To optimize benefits and minimize liabilities, knowledgeable tax advice is imperative due to the intricate nature of the tax code and the existence of specific credits such as the dependent care credit. It is essential to comprehend the nuances of the payment fee for returned payments in order to prevent needless penalties. The progressive tax system used in the United States is intended to make sure that qualified taxpayers pay their fair share in relation to their income levels. In order to accurately calculate their tax obligations as tax season draws near, people must evaluate their financial activities during the previous year, taking into account factors like health care costs and property ownership. It is essential to comprehend the implications at both the state and federal levels for individuals who have a qualifying child or dependent. States with a state income tax may have different tax considerations than South Dakota, which primarily relies on sales tax. To maintain compliance and prevent problems like tax evasion, it’s critical to accurately report all sources of income, including rental income, on both the individual tax return and the federal income tax return.

The changes brought about by the American Rescue Plan affect a large number of taxpayers, including those who qualify for expanded credits and those in higher tax brackets. Keeping up with these updates is essential if you want to make the most of the benefits that are offered and successfully negotiate the tax system’s complexities. Individuals who pay taxes, particularly those with high incomes and significant net worth, ought to be aware of their marginal tax rate and devise plans to minimize their tax obligations. This could entail looking into credits and deductions, comprehending the effects of the alternative minimum tax, and making plans for upcoming tax payments. Married couples’ tax obligations and possible refunds can be greatly impacted by choosing the appropriate filing status, such as head of household. Additionally, President Biden’s proposals for tax reform and changes to federal law may have an impact on their financial planning. To sum up, a comprehensive comprehension of tax laws, deductions, and credits is essential for effectively navigating the tax landscape. To maximize their tax results, taxpayers should make sure they have all the required tax documentation, including their social security number, and think about speaking with a tax expert. Effectively managing one’s tax account and maintaining compliance with the Internal Revenue Service require being proactive and knowledgeable, whether one is dealing with property taxes, state income taxes, or federal taxes.


What should I do if I’m unable to meet the terms of my IRS payment plan?

If you find yourself unable to afford your IRS payment plan, it’s crucial to contact the IRS immediately by calling 800-829-1040. The IRS may offer options such as reducing your monthly payment amount to better fit your current financial situation. Be prepared to provide documentation or evidence of any changes in your financial condition when you make the call.

Who qualifies for the IRS’s hardship program?

The IRS hardship program is designed for individuals whose financial situation meets certain criteria. To be considered for tax hardship, you must have an annual income of less than $84,000 and have little to no disposable income after covering basic living expenses. The determination is made based on information provided on Forms 433A, 433B, or 433F.

What options are available if I can’t afford to pay my tax bill to the IRS?

If you’re unable to pay your tax bill, the IRS offers the option to apply for a payment plan. This can be done through the IRS website at Payment plans can be short-term, lasting 180 days or less for amounts less than $100,000 in combined tax, penalties, and interest, or long-term through an installment agreement.

Who is eligible to apply for an IRS payment plan?

Individuals may qualify for an IRS payment plan under certain conditions. For a long-term payment plan or installment agreement, you must owe $50,000 or less in combined tax, penalties, and interest and have filed all required tax returns. For a short-term payment plan, the total owed must be less than $100,000 in combined tax, penalties, and interest.

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