The IRS is still dealing with backlogs of tax returns from the previous year – on top of tax withholding adjustments from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. So, many taxpayers are afraid they may face an IRS bill they might not be able to afford. Instead of hiding from the IRS because you can’t afford to pay them, you might want to try working with them to find a solution.

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What happens if I don’t file at all?

One common instinct when you realize that you owe the IRS money is to skip filing altogether. But don’t skip filing your taxes just because you can’t pay!

Because the IRS has backlogs, some people think they might be able to get away with not filing their taxes. Don’t expect this backlog to work in your favor, says Kari Brummond of

The IRS will always notice if you file late, and it will assess a late filing penalty. Tax returns are date stamped. Whether you file online or through the mail, the IRS can see the date you filed even if they don’t process your return right away.

EXPERT: Kari Brummond, Tax Preparer for

Failing to file makes the penalties that you’ll face much worse. Here’s the difference between not filing at all and filing but being unable to pay:[1]

Failure to file Failure to pay
A penalty of 5% of the unpaid amount you should have reported. A penalty of 0.5% of the amount that’s not paid by April 15. Charged each month or part of a month where your return is late, up to 5 months.
Recurring charge each month or part of the month on amount unpaid until the amount owed is paid in full or 25% penalty is reached. Subject to a minimum late filing penalty amount of $210 if your return is filed late by more than 60 days but you file before 12/31/2019.
Penalties apply even if you filed a tax extension on time by April 15. A tax extension will not avoid any of the above-mentioned penalties. If you also have a failure to file penalty, that penalty is reduced by the amount equal to the failure to pay penalty.

So, while you will still incur penalties if you can’t afford to pay, those penalties are nowhere near as steep. This is why you want to file your tax returns now, even if you can’t afford to pay the bill with your returns.

How interest charges work on tax debt

In addition to the basic penalties the IRS will assess, you also must deal with interest charges. The IRS charges interest on any balance you owe until it’s paid in full. That means you pay interest on:[2]

  1. The original amount you owe on your tax return
  2. All the penalties outlined above
  3. The interest that accrues on your tax debt

Interest on tax debt accumulates daily! This means that a little tax problem can quickly turn into a big tax problem if you don’t deal with it.

Find out exactly how much you owe the IRS now with a free confidential report from a certified tax professional.

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Taxes and penalties will apply from April 15, even if you filed an extension

The clock on failing to pay penalties and interest doesn’t start from when you finally decide to file your federal income tax return. It starts on April 15, 2019. That’s true even if you filed an extension on time. Once you file your tax returns by October 15, the IRS will retroactively apply penalties and interest starting from April 15. That means that the amount you owe will be higher than what’s indicated on your return. However, as long as you file by April 15th (or October 15th if you have an extension) you will not be charged failure to file penalties!

What you can do if you can’t afford to pay when you file

Ideally, you want to pay your tax bill in full by April 15 to avoid any penalties and interest. If you can’t afford to pay the full amount now, then pay whatever you can afford to pay. Any amount you can put towards reducing your tax debt now will reduce the amount that will accrue interest charges moving forward.

If you can’t pay your taxes, three options can help you avoid facing the aggressive collection actions that you can face from the IRS. Remember, the IRS can garnish your wages, place property liens and levy your bank accounts, all without any court order. You don’t want to just ignore your bill or try to hide from the IRS. The consequences of avoidance can be extremely damaging.

Instead of hiding, you should be proactive and work with the IRS to use one of these solutions.

Julie Farah, a tax attorney with Justice Tax, says there are a number of options available for indebted taxpayers. At the end of the day, the IRS just wants to help come up with solutions.

The IRS does offer a number of resolution plans that are available to indebted taxpayers. If a taxpayer is unable to repay the IRS, it is recommended that they call a Tax Attorney or Licensed Tax Professional immediately.

EXPERT: Julie Farah, Tax Attorney for Justice Tax

Option No. 1: File CNC status

If you simply don’t have any money available to pay your tax bill, you can file for Currently Not Collectible Status. CNC status is designed to help people who can’t afford to pay their taxes. It’s basically the IRS acknowledging that you can’t afford to pay, so they stop all collection actions until your situation improved.

Keep in mind that this does not stop penalties and interest. However, it will help you avoid wage garnishment and liens, which would make your tough financial situation even worse.

See if you qualify for CNC »

Option No. 2: Set up a payment plan

If you can afford to pay at least something towards your tax debt each month, you may want to consider an Installment Agreement (IA). This is a tax payment plan that breaks the amount you owe down into manageable monthly payments that work for your budget.

Installment Agreements allow you to pay off your tax bill in full. Penalties and interest continue to accrue even after you set up the payment plan and start making payments.

Setting up an Installment Agreement »

Option No. 3: Settle your tax debt for less than you owe

The last option is to settle your tax debt for less than the full amount you owe. An Offer in Compromise (OIC) is the IRS’ version of debt settlement. They review your finances with you and determine how much you can reasonably afford to pay back. Then they will either help you set up a payment plan or determine if you can liquidate any assets to pay off the reduced amount in a single lump sum.

Settling tax debt for less than you owe »

Don’t wait to get professional help!

If you know that you will owe once you file, the best advice is to get professional help immediately. Don’t wait until after you file your return and receive a bill from the IRS. Be proactive and get help now.

  1. Find a certified tax attorney that’s licensed to work in your state.
  2. Explain your situation, including whether you’ve filed this year or filed a tax extension.
  3. Then you’ll review your debts, assets, and budget to decide which of the three options above will work best.

Using this method will ensure you already have a solution ready to implement by the time you file. That will give you peace of mind that you won’t face the harsh collection actions that the IRS can use.

Connect with a certified tax professional now to get a solution before you file.

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Article last modified on November 16, 2022. Published by, LLC

Reviewed By

Jacob Dayan

Expert contributor, Community Tax CEO & Co-Founder