The IRS has authority to take certain actions to recover unpaid taxes from individuals and businesses, provided it has given sufficient notice. Some confusion exists over the difference between two tactics that the IRS may use: a federal tax lien and a federal tax levy. The key difference is that a levy involves an actual seizure of property, while a lien is merely a claim on property because of an unpaid debt. The IRS must provide taxpayers with notice before levying property or filing a lien. In either case, the taxpayer may request a hearing to dispute the IRS’s determination.
Federal Tax Liens
A “lien” is an interest in property by someone who does not have the right to possess that property. Mortgage liens are a common example. When a person takes out a mortgage to buy real property, the mortgage lender typically has a lien on that property until the mortgage loan is paid in full. The document creating the lien is filed in the public record and serves as notice that the mortgage lender has a claim on the property. If the owner defaults on the loan, the lienholder can recover the debt through foreclosure. If the owner sells the property without paying off the loan, the lien remains attached to the property, along with the right to foreclose.
A federal tax lien is not attached to a single piece of property. It attaches to any property owned by the taxpayer, including a home or other real estate. A tax lien also covers automobiles, securities and other financial assets, and personal property. Tax liens often have priority over other liens, meaning that it gets paid before other debts.