Can’t pay your taxes? Don’t worry

April 13, 2010

– Thomson Reuters Tax Analyst Jim Keller provides some options available to help taxpayers pay their balance due. This article originally appeared on –

Are there options for Americans who cannot pay their taxes? According to Jim Keller, senior tax analyst for the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters, if you discover on April 15 that you have a balance due on your 2009 Form 1040, you won’t be alone.

In addition to the traditional causes of tax underpayment (such as the receipt of interest, dividends, or other non-wage income), the government estimates that more than 15 million taxpayers will be unpleasantly surprised to discover that they owe taxes with their 2009 returns as a result of the way income tax withholding was reduced to account for the “Making Work Pay Credit”.

“Taxpayers who fail to file on a timely basis and pay their taxes face penalties and interest charges,” said Keller, “these folks can expect to come up against a more aggressive IRS. For example, the IRS filed more than 683,000 tax liens during 2008 and served over 2.6 million levies during that same period.

There are some options available to help taxpayers pay their balance due:


– No cash? File an extension. Assume that Don and Jody’s 2009 tax return shows unpaid tax of $5,000, but they don’t have the cash to pay the tax. First, they should not ignore the IRS – it will not go away. They should either file their return by the April 15 due date, or request a filing extension. Either way, the failure to pay the taxes due on April 15 will result in interest charges and a penalty for failure to pay of 0.5 percent per month on the unpaid balance (up to 25 percent) until the taxes are paid. But by filing or extending their return, they’ll avoid the more onerous late filing penalty of 5 percent per month on the unpaid balance (up to 25 percent) until the return is filed.

– Don’t do anything. If Don and Jody don’t do anything by April 15th, but file the return and pay their taxes three months later, they’ll owe a failure to file penalty of $750. If they extend the return and then file it and pay their taxes three months later, they’d pay a failure to pay penalty of $75 – $675 less than if no extension had been filed. “This shows how important it is to file or extend by April 15th even if you don’t have the money,” said Keller.

– Getting an extension is pretty easy. Taxpayers no longer have to pay the balance due or sign the extension request for a valid six-month filing extension. However, the liability must be properly estimated and the amount due entered on the appropriate lines of the request, or the extension will be disallowed. “While an extension will avoid a failure to file penalty, interest and the failure to pay penalty will accrue from April 15 until the tax is paid,” Keller warned.

– Undue hardship hard to establish. Some taxpayers will qualify for an extension due to undue hardship, or because of a federally declared disaster, terrorist act, or military action. This approach would allow Don and Jody to avoid the failure to pay penalty but not the interest charge. “However, hardship relief is difficult to obtain because of the restricted definition of hardship, and most taxpayers do not experience a federally declared disaster, like a hurricane or flood,” said Keller.


– Borrow from a bank or family. “Since the failure to pay penalty and interest applies to the late payment of tax, borrowing from a family member, bank, or other lender can be less expensive than paying penalties and interest to the IRS,” said Keller, pointing out that the IRS interest rate changes quarterly. For the first quarter of 2010, the underpayment rate is 4 percent. Tax penalties are nondeductible, and interest expense associated with Don and Jody’s federal tax liability, whether paid to the IRS or to a commercial lender, generally is nondeductible personal interest.

– Get a home equity loan. If Don and Jody finance the tax payment with a home equity loan, the interest may be deductible for regular tax (but not AMT) purposes. A home equity loan is debt (other than acquisition debt) secured by a qualified residence. It generates deductible interest to the extent the loan doesn’t exceed the lesser of $100,000 ($50,000 for married filing separately), or the FMV of the residence less acquisition debt. There’s no limit on the number of qualified home equity loans a taxpayer can take out (as long as the loans collectively meet the $100,000/$50,000 or FMV limitation) and use of the debt proceeds is irrelevant unless they’re used to purchase or carry tax-exempt obligations.

– Pay by credit card. When you pay the tax by credit card, applicable finance charges (according to the credit card agreement) and processing fees will apply, but if Don or Jody has a low interest rate card, these will be kept to a minimum until the balance is paid in full. While the interest on the credit card is nondeductible personal interest, some credit cards provide low rates, airline miles, or other incentives. For more information, go to the front page of and type “paying tax by credit card” in the Search box.

– Request an installment agreement with the IRS. A final option is to request an installment arrangement from the IRS through Form 9465. Once Don and Jody’s request is submitted, the IRS will notify them within 30 days if the request is approved or denied, or if additional information is needed. The IRS would charge Don and Jody a $105 fee for entering into the agreement, but that fee would be reduced to $52 if the direct debit option is selected, and can be reduced to $43 for certain low-income taxpayers.

Under current administrative procedures, the IRS will approve installment agreements up to $25,000 (including tax, penalties, and interest) when the taxpayer agrees to pay the amount due in five years or less. Also, since Don and Jody owe $25,000 or less, they can use the online payment agreement (OPA) application at to request a payment agreement. This application is available to taxpayers who meet the $25,000 requirement, have filed all required tax returns, and are current with their tax payments. The OPA application would enable Don and Jody to obtain a short-term extension of up to 120 days to pay, or request a longer monthly payment plan.

Says Keller: “The bottom line is that if you can’t pay taxes you owe on April 15, either file your return or file for an extension, and pay as much as you can to avoid penalties and interest. You can then work on a solution to pay the unpaid balance. But do not ignore the filing deadline,” said Keller.

One comment

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Thanks for the income tax pitfall refresher.
I was one of those who was not so pleasantly surprised to find a 400% increase on my tax owed for ’09 due to the income tax withholding that was reduced to account for the “Making Work Pay Credit”. As I made the check out to The Treasury, I couldn’t help think that “re-distribution of wealth” still lives on Main Street.

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