The IRS may make a number of decisions concerning a taxpayer’s taxes which a taxpayer may understandably disagree with. When this occurs, there are two primary paths a taxpayer can take to change the IRS decision: file an appeal with the IRS Office of Appeals or start a lawsuit in Tax Court. This post will focus on the appeals process.
Not every decision the IRS makes is absolute. In fact, most of the IRS’ most significant conclusions and findings are subject to potential review by a neutral examiner at the taxpayer’s request. However, not every taxpayer who disagrees with the IRS should appeal the decision. But for those that do, the following is a general overview of the appeals process
When and Why to File an Appeal
The following is a sample list of typical IRS decisions that can be appealed:
Any dispute that deals with a legitimate tax issue, such as a legal or factual disagreement, can be appealed. What can’t be appealed are religious, constitutional, political and moral disagreements with the IRS. Also, you can’t file an appeal for the sole reason that you can’t pay the tax debt the IRS believes you owe.
Submitting the Appeal
In order to handle the appeals process, the IRS has set up the Office of Appeals, which is a completely separate and independent office from the IRS. The goal of the Office of Appeals is to resolve tax disputes without resorting to the courts, which can be a costly and drawn out process for both sides.
The appeals process begins after an audit or some other tax decision. Following the decision, the IRS will ask the taxpayer to either accept or appeal its decision within a particular time period, which is usually 30 days. The taxpayer has two potential methods of proceeding with an appeal.
The first method is the Small Case Request appeal. This method is only available where the taxes, penalties and interest at issue for a particular tax year add up to $25,000 or less. When making this request, the taxpayer must explain what the taxpayer disagrees with and the basis for that disagreement.
The second method is the Formal Written Protest appeal, which is required for disputes amounting to more than $25,000. In a Formal Written Protest appeal, the taxpayer must provide the following information or take the following actions:
- The taxpayer’s contact information, such as address and phone number.
- A copy of the letter containing the IRS’ decision for which the taxpayer is appealing.
- Identify the tax years at issue.
- The specific IRS decisions or findings that the taxpayer disagrees with.
- Facts and specific laws that support the taxpayer’s belief that the IRS made an incorrect determination.
- Swear to the following statement: “Under the penalties of perjury, I declare that I examined the facts stated in this protest, including any accompanying documents, and, to the best of my knowledge and belief, they are true, correct, and complete.”
Once the appeal is submitted, the taxpayer should hear back from the Office of Appeals within 90 days, when a conference will be scheduled. These conferences are held before a Settlement or Appeals Officer and usually fairly informal. The taxpayer can have a CPA or attorney represent them if they choose. Occasionally, the appeal can be handled over the phone or by mail.
Following the conference, the Appeals Officer will make his or her decision and try to reach a settlement with the taxpayer. These settlements commonly side with the taxpayer at least to some extent, since the Appeals Officer wants to avoid the taxpayer being unhappy with the results of the appeal and taking the case to trial.
If a settlement can’t be reached and the Appeals Officer sides with the IRS, the taxpayer has the option to further challenge the IRS in a court of law.
The appeals process is not something a taxpayer should decide to do as a knee-jerk reaction to an IRS decision the taxpayer disagrees with. There are many things to consider before initiating the appeals process. For instance, the Appeals Officer may bring up issues that the IRS auditor missed. Also, during appeals process, any interest will continue to accrue. The decision whether to appeal, as well as the appeals process, can be difficult for the typical taxpayer, so professional tax advice is highly recommended.
One of the IRS’ most powerful tools to collect a tax debt is wage garnishment. Wage garnishment is the ability to take a portion of an employee’s wages directly from his or her paycheck. Wage garnishment is a very intrusive method of collection and several ways to deal with it are discussed below.
Background: Wage Garnishment Process
Before the IRS can begin taking money directly from a taxpayer’s paycheck, it must go through several steps. It generally begins with written notice to the taxpayer regarding the amount of the tax debt along with any penalties and interest. Assuming the taxpayer doesn’t take suitable action in response to this first letter, the IRS will send another written notice, explaining the intent to place garnish the taxpayer’s wages.
Assuming the taxpayer still does not adequately respond within a certain period of time (typically 30 days), the IRS will start garnishing the taxpayer’s wages. The IRS does not need to get a court judgment before garnishment can begin.
The IRS will then directly contact the taxpayer’s employer and force them to deduct a portion of the taxpayer’s paycheck and send it to the IRS. The amount the IRS can garnish depends on the size of the paycheck. The law does not limit how much the IRS can garnish, but rather, how much the IRS must leave behind in each paycheck for the taxpayer. The amount the IRS must leave will depend on the taxpayer’s filing status.
Stopping the IRS from Wage Garnishment
The following is a list of methods for stopping or stalling wage garnishment. None of the methods will actually make the entire tax debt go away, but will allow the taxpayer to pay the outstanding tax bill using another method or buy time before wage garnishment resumes. Also, all of the below methods require any back tax returns to be filed with the IRS.
Method #1: Pay Off the Tax Debt
This method is idealistic, since the wage garnishment process probably wouldn’t have started if the taxpayer had enough money to pay his or her taxes. However, getting rid of the IRS debt, even if it means incurring interest charges by borrowing money, might be worth it for emotional well-being if nothing else.
Method #2: Apply for an Offer In Compromise
An offer in compromise is a means of paying off a tax debt for less than the full amount. Taxpayers must apply for an offer in compromise and it’s up to the IRS’ discretion whether to accept it. For more information, check out our earlier offer in compromise blog post.
Method #3: Set Up a Payment Plan
If a monthly installment agreement can be established where the tax debt can be paid off in three years or less, the IRS will usually agree to stop garnishing a taxpayer’s wages.
Method #4: Claim Financial Hardship
If the taxpayer can prove that the wage garnishment is creating a severe financial hardship, the garnishment can be halted until the taxpayer’s financial situation improves. The taxpayer will be required to show that the wage garnishment does not leave enough money for the taxpayer to pay for basic living expenses.
Method #5: Change Jobs
When a taxpayer changes jobs, the IRS eventually finds out, then goes through the process of contacting the new employer and re-establishing the wage garnishment. This can buy the taxpayer some time where his or her wages aren’t garnished, although it merely delays the inevitable.
Method #6: Declare Bankruptcy
This is an extreme option, given the financial repercussions to the taxpayer’s credit history and cost of filing for bankruptcy. Also, it won’t wipe out the tax debt, but it can stop the wage garnishment for a period of time.
Expert Advice Is Recommended
Deciding which method is best will depend on each taxpayer’s unique circumstances. Figuring out which option to use and how to use it will almost always require the advice of a qualified tax professional.
The IRS has announced a new appeals process to begin September 2nd, which hopefully will benefit taxpayers trying to settle their cases. At the 2014 IRS Nationwide Tax Forum in August, it was announced that “the focus is going to be on settling cases” and that “the Appeals staff will not raise new issues.” The stated goal is to enhance customer perceptions of a fair, impartial, and independent Office of Appeals.