File Your Tax Return Even If You Can’t Pay

I often joke that I pay my taxes because I don’t want the Internal Revenue Service to take my home.

But for many people that fear is still not enough to make them file a tax return. I’m not talking about the fools who think they have a legal case for not paying federal taxes. I’m referring to regular folks who, for whatever reason, haven’t filed their taxes in some time.

In most cases, people don’t file returns because they don’t have the money they owe, says Lynn Schmidt, a tax practitioner based in Winter Haven, Fla.

To be specific, Schmidt is an “enrolled agent,” meaning she is licensed by the federal government to represent taxpayers before the IRS during audits, and for collections and appeals.

Schmidt, who has a small practice, said every tax year she takes on about 10 clients who have been delinquent in filing returns. Some people don’t file because they’ve been ill or through a bad divorce and paperwork has been lost or tossed (out of spite).

However, many non-filers are people who are self-employed or have income not subject to withholding. When they get paid, they fail to set aside the taxes they owe.

“What they are doing is living beyond their means,” Schmidt said. “When tax time comes, they figure ‘I don’t have the money so I’m not going to file.’ That thinking is wrong because there is also a penalty for late filing. If you just file the return, you eliminate one of the penalties.”

In some cases, these tax scofflaws gamble that their non-filing will go unnoticed. And many people do get away with not filing a return year after year.

Most recently, Marion Barry, the District of Columbia’s most infamous former mayor and now council member, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges as a result of his failure to file local and federal income tax returns for six years.

Failure to file a return or filing late can be costly. If taxes are owed, a delay in filing may result in penalty and interest charges that could increase your tax bill by 25 percent or more.

But the biggest incentive you should have to file is that when you do, a clock starts ticking, Schmidt said. Once you file, the IRS generally has 10 years to collect the money you owe. However, there are circumstances in which the time limit could be extended beyond the 10-year period.

Even if the clock is ticking, you’re not going to have an easy 10 years. Your paycheck could be garnished. Your bank account could be frozen or even seized. A lien could be placed on your wages, retirement income or even your home. You could face criminal prosecution.

There is no penalty for failure to file a tax return if you are due a refund.

So what should you do if you haven’t filed in a while? You might start by contacting an enrolled agent. To find an agent in your area, call toll free 800-424-4339 or visit the National Association of Enrolled Agents Web site at Click on the link for “Find an Enrolled Agent.”

According to the association, if you haven’t filed a tax return here’s what you should know:

  • If you have a valid reason for not filing a tax return, such as you have been ill or hospitalized, it is possible that some of the penalties can be reduced. However, don’t assume you’ll easily walk away with a deal to pay pennies on the dollar. “There has to be the right circumstances to negotiate down the debt,” Schmidt said.
  • If you owe money and can’t pay all of it at once, you can ask for an installment agreement. If you owe less than $25,000 and can pay the full amount within five years, you may be able to set up a monthly payment plan.
  • If you owe so much money that you will never be able to pay your tax liability, an enrolled agent may be able to work out a compromise where the IRS will accept less than you actually owe. If the IRS accepts your offer, your total tax liability – including interest and penalty – is considered paid in full.

Look, if you didn’t file your return last year or for the past several years, correct the situation before the IRS catches you. Fess up first.

“I find that taxpayers once they get those returns caught up, a huge weight is lifted off their shoulders and they can then move forward,” Schmidt said.

You might be scared to file but frankly, the alternative is much worse. File your return even if you aren’t sure how you’ll pay. I know I would because the IRS doesn’t play. I certainly wouldn’t want to give up my house for a stint in a jailhouse.

By Michelle Singletary

In his 40-plus-year newspaper career, George Morris has written about just about everything -- Super Bowls, evangelists, World War II veterans and ordinary people with extraordinary tales. His work has received multiple honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press and the Louisiana Press Association. He avoids debt when he can and pays it off quickly when he can't, and he's only too happy to suggest how you might do the same.

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