Articles Posted in Tax Debt

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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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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