Articles Posted in IRS Tax Debts

The IRS must follow a series of procedures to collect unpaid taxes. The first step is to send written correspondence to the taxpayer informing them that their tax return is overdue and advising them of the penalties for continuing to fail to file. From there, the IRS may place a lien on a taxpayer’s property, followed by the execution of a levy. It could hand long-delinquent cases over to private debt collectors. Our Los Angeles tax advisors have observed that the IRS recently announced that revenue officers (ROs) will be visiting high-income taxpayers with at least one unfiled tax return in 2020. “High-income” in this instance means annual income of more than $100,000.

What Is a Revenue Officer?

ROs work at IRS field collection offices located around the country. Their job is to collect unpaid taxes, but their powers in that regard are somewhat limited. They are civilian employees, not law enforcement officers. They therefore do not wear a uniform or carry a firearm, and they cannot make arrests. They carry identification cards, not badges.

If an RO has reason to believe a criminal offense, such as tax fraud, has occurred, they must refer the matter to the IRS’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID). CID agents carry badges and can make arrests.

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Student loans account for a substantial portion of this country’s total indebtedness. Outstanding student loan debt is estimated at $1.5 to 1.6 trillion. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) holds almost all of this debt, giving it substantial power over repayment, forgiveness, and discharge. Normally, discharge of debt is considered a taxable event. The IRS has established revenue procedures creating a “safe harbor” for discharges under certain DOE programs. Our Los Angeles tax advisors observed that it recently issued a new revenue procedure expanding that safe harbor.

Student Loan Discharge Programs

The DOE maintains several programs that allow partial or total discharge of student loan debt in specific situations. These programs only apply to student loans made or guaranteed by the DOE.

Closed School Discharge

The Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, as amended in 1986, directs the DOE to discharge the student loan debt of a borrower who is unable to complete their studies because their school closes, or because of certain fraudulent actions on the part of the school. Borrowers must apply to the DOE to obtain a discharge under this program. They must be able to demonstrate that they were either enrolled in the school or on an “approved leave of absence” at the time of closure, or that they withdrew 120 days or less before the school closed.

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The Social Security program has provided benefits for millions of people in its eighty-five years of existence. Political compromises have kept the program going as the cost of living has increased faster than wages. One of these compromises resulted in the assessment of federal income taxes on some Social Security benefits. This only applies to taxpayers with income above a threshold amount. Even if an individual’s income is above the threshold, only part of their Social Security benefits are taxable. Not all benefits payable by the Social Security Administration (SSA) are subject to federal income tax, and our Los Angeles tax advisors can explain the extent to which tax rules apply.

Types of Social Security Benefits

The SSA is an independent federal agency, meaning that while it is part of the Executive Branch of the federal government, it is not part of a federal executive department. Much of the funding for SSA programs comes from payroll taxes. The agency administers numerous benefit programs, including:
Retirement benefits, which are available to people who have made a minimum number of payments into the program through their payroll taxes, and who have reached the age of sixty-two;
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), which helps eligible individuals who are unable to support themselves because of an injury or medical condition;
Survivors benefits, which provides assistance for family members of SSA beneficiaries; and
Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which pays benefits to elder individuals, blind individuals, and individuals with disabilities.

Most of these benefits are taxable if the individual meets the income threshold. Dependent or survivor benefits received by a child are usually not taxable, unless the child has sufficient income to file their own income tax return. SSI benefits are not subject to federal income tax under any circumstances.

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At the end of the year, some employers reward their employees with year-end bonuses. This can be a nice way to close out the year, but it can also bring questions about taxes. How will the IRS treat your year-end bonus when taxes come due in a few months? If your employer withholds taxes from your paychecks, they have already done most of the work for you. Depending on the size of the bonus, our Los Angeles tax advisors feel that it is often still a good idea to make sure you will not get any surprises in your tax return.

Which Bonuses Are Taxable?

Year-end bonuses can be extremely generous, or they can be a token of an employer’s appreciation (emphasis on “token.”) A bonus could take the form of a fruit basket or other gift item, or it could come in check form.

Small gift items are not necessarily considered “income” for federal tax purposes. You probably do not have to report that fruit basket, for example. Larger gifts, like a car or something similarly pricey, will count as “income.” If your employer hands you a check at the end of the year, that is definitely taxable income.
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Retirement planning is crucial to a person’s financial well-being. Contributing to a retirement account as early and often as possible can offer peace of mind, with the knowledge that many years of hard work will pay off. Certain types of retirement accounts can also offer tax benefits, either now or in the future. Starting in the early 1970s, Congress authorized favorable tax treatment for employee contributions to individual retirement accounts (IRAs). Our Los Angeles tax professionals can advise you on the benefits that each type of IRA may provide.

What Is an IRA?

An IRA is a type of financial account that offer tax advantages as a way to encourage people to save for retirement. Many employers include IRAs as a benefit for their employees. Individuals may also open IRAs on their own. The IRS refers to these accounts as “individual retirement arrangements.”

The two most well-known IRAs are:

Traditional IRA: Congress established the tax benefits of a traditional IRA in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974.
Roth IRA: The Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 created this type of account, named for Senator William V. Roth, Jr. (R-DE).

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The purpose of most lawsuits is to make a plaintiff whole after an injury or other loss. Settling a lawsuit might bring the litigation to a close, but the plaintiff must still contend with the IRS. Luckily, taxation of lawsuit settlements is fairly straightforward once one understands a few principles that our Los Angeles tax advisors can explain.

Settling a Lawsuit vs. Winning a Verdict or Judgment

The IRS makes no distinction between a payment received due to a settlement and one that comes after a jury verdict or court order. In either case, a taxpayer receives compensation for one or more legal claims. We will use the term “settlement” for the sake of brevity, but the same principles apply to damage awards.

One advantage of a verdict or court order is that it is more likely to contain a breakdown of damages. Verdicts often specify the amounts awarded for different claims. This can help a plaintiff when they are preparing their taxes. For this reason, it is often advisable to include a written allocation of damages in a settlement agreement.

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The IRS has many options for collecting unpaid taxes, but a limited budget means that the agency must prioritize its enforcement and collection efforts. For most taxpayers who are in arrears, penalties and interest accrue as the IRS sends notices by mail. Eventually, the IRS might place liens on a taxpayer’s property, and then execute a levy. This can be costly and time-consuming, and the agency would rather obtain unpaid taxes by other means. It recently announced that IRS revenue officers will be conducting in-person visits with delinquent taxpayers in several states. While this will not affect California taxpayers right away, that could change in the future. If you are behind in filing and/or paying taxes, you may want to speak with a California tax advisor about your situation.

IRS Debt Collection

Federal law gives the agency two main options for pursuing tax debt that has remained on the books for some time. These may apply to both individual taxpayers and businesses. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TBOR) applies in all cases.

Revenue Officers

The IRS describes revenue officers (ROs) as “civil enforcement employees” assigned to cases involving unpaid taxes or missing tax returns. A RO’s involvement in a case typically begins with another written notice sent by mail. The RO’s job, according to the IRS, is to help bring taxpayers into compliance, “not to make threats or demand some unusual form of payment for a nonexistent liability.”

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The IRS has estimated that U.S. taxpayers underpay their taxes by around $300 billion each year. Each taxpayer is responsible for calculating their own tax bill, but the IRS also uses other sources of information. It compares the information provided on taxpayer returns to that other information. If it finds a discrepancy, it sends a notice to the taxpayer. For years, the IRS used a form known as the CP2000 Notice, or the “Notice of Underreported Income.” The IRS recently began to use another form, the CP2057. Taxpayers should be aware of both notices, and our California tax advisors urge you to be aware of what you should do if you receive either one.

Warning Letters

Federal law gives the IRS extensive authority to collect unpaid taxes, but the process involves a lengthy series of notices. CP2000 and CP2057 are preliminary notices. They are not “bills,” in the sense that receiving one of these notices does not immediately trigger an obligation for the taxpayer to send money to the IRS. Instead, they are ways for the IRS to notify a taxpayer about discrepancies in their file, and to give them an opportunity to correct the information.

In order for the IRS to pursue a collection action against a taxpayer, they must send a formal notice and demand for payment, known as a CP501 Notice. This notice identifies a specific amount owed and gives a deadline for payment. If the taxpayer fails to pay by the deadline, or otherwise fails to respond to the notice, the IRS can file a tax lien. If the IRS intends to levy the taxpayer’s property, it must send a CP504 Notice.

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The estate tax applies to property transferred by a will or other probate proceedings. Congress has set extensive limitations on who is obligated to pay estate tax. The most recent tax reform bill, enacted in 2017, more than doubled the size of estates that are excluded from estate tax liability. A handful of states have enacted their own taxes on estates or inheritances, but California is not among them. Even if a person does not expect their estate to be large enough to incur an estate tax liability, understanding how the tax works is an important part of estate planning.

What Is the Estate Tax?

The Internal Revenue Code (IRC) defines the estate tax as a tax on “the transfer of the taxable estate of every decedent who is” a U.S. citizen or resident. The executor of the estate is responsible for paying the tax.

The tax is calculated as a percentage of the value of the non-exempt part of an estate. Tax rates start at eighteen percent for values of $10,000 or less. For a value of more than $1 million, the amount of tax is $345,800 plus forty percent of the amount in excess of $1 million.

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Businesses with employees have federal tax obligations besides income tax. The Internal Revenue Code (IRC) makes both employers and employees responsible for paying employment taxes, but the responsibility for transmitting those tax payments to the IRS belongs solely to the employer. If an employer fails to pay employment taxes or file an employment tax return, the IRC authorizes the government to create a return for the employer and assess the amount of tax due. The IRS has created a program that allows automated creation of missing returns, but the program is reportedly understaffed and lacking in other resources. A recent audit by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) found that these deficiencies in the program caused the IRS to miss billions of dollars in employment tax assessments.

What Are Employment Taxes?

The Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) requires both employees and employers to pay the following employment taxes:
– 6.2 percent of the employee’s wages for “old-age, survivors, and disability insurance,” also known as Social Security; and
– 1.45 percent of the employee’s wages for “hospital insurance,” or Medicare.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) sets a cap on the amount of earnings subject to the 6.2 percent Social Security tax. As of the end of 2018, the cap is set at $132,900. There is no cap on earnings subject to the 1.45 percent Medicare tax.

The Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) requires employers, but not employees, to pay an excise tax of 6.0 percent of each employee’s wages up to $7,000.
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