3 tips if you cannot pay your taxes

Lots of people have had a rough 2011. In some cases, they are facing a tax bill that they cannot afford to pay. Here are three tips that show the best practice for managing this difficult situation.

1. File Your Tax Return On Time

Do not file an extension unless you are going to pay 90% of the amount of taxes you think you owe. If you fail to file your tax return, the IRS will assess a penalty for ‘failing to file’. This penalty is separate from the ‘failure to pay’ penalty, which the IRS will assess for being unable to pay your taxes, come April 18th. Yes, it's the 18th, because the 15th fell on a Sunday.

The penalty for failing to file builds up ten times faster than the penalty for failing to pay. According to the IRS’s ‘Eight Facts on Penalties’, the ‘failure to file’ penalty is assed at the rate of 5% of the tax owed, per month, up to 25% of the tax owed. This is in stark contrast with the ‘failure to pay’ penalty, which is assed at 0.5% of the tax owed per month, up to 25% of the tax owed.

2. Pay as much as you can.

Send a check with your return, even if it is only $20. The act of submitting a payment makes a difference. It puts you in the category of failure to pay tax in full rather than the category of failure to pay tax at all.

3. Request Installment payments.

There are lots of people in the same situation as you are. The government typically works out an installment arrangement. It is best to request an installment arrangement immediately upon the filing of your timely tax return along with your good faith payment. If you cannot pay all of your taxes, file Form 9465 : Installment Agreement Request Form.

When it comes to filing a tax return – or not filing one - the IRS can assess a penalty if you fail to file, fail to pay or both. Here are eight important points the IRS wants you to know about the two different penalties you may face if you do not file or pay timely.

If you do not file by the deadline, you might face a failure-to-file penalty. If you do not pay by the due date, you could face a failure-to-pay penalty.

The failure-to-file penalty is generally more than the failure-to-pay penalty. So if you cannot pay all the taxes you owe, you should still file your tax return on time and explore other payment options in the meantime. The IRS will work with you.

The penalty for filing late is usually 5 percent of the unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month that a return is late. This penalty will not exceed 25 percent of your unpaid taxes.

If you file your return more than 60 days after the due date or extended due date, the minimum penalty is the smaller of $135 or 100 percent of the unpaid tax.

If you do not pay your taxes by the due date, you will generally have to pay a failure-to-pay penalty of ½ of 1 percent of your unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month after the due date that the taxes are not paid. This penalty can be as much as 25 percent of your unpaid taxes.

If you timely filed a request for an extension of time to file and you paid at least 90 percent of your actual tax liability by the original due date, you will not be faced with a failure-to-pay penalty if the remaining balance is paid by the extended due date.

If both the failure-to-file penalty and the failure-to-pay penalty apply in any month, the 5 percent failure-to-file penalty is reduced by the failure-to-pay penalty. However, if you file your return more than 60 days after the due date or extended due date, the minimum penalty is the smaller of $135 or 100% of the unpaid tax.

You will not have to pay a failure-to-file or failure-to-pay penalty if you can show that you failed to file or pay on time because of reasonable cause and not because of willful neglect.

By the way: I appreciate the goals of government: safety for citizens, public education, transportation infrastructure, etc. But I do not think that government is efficient at spending our taxes effectively. Here is an article that discusses that: http://www.victorlund.com/2012/03/forcing-americans-to-pay.html


  1. There is another category for some to consider. If one experienced an unemployment period in 2011 and/or is currently unemployed the government provides some relief on filing and not incurring a tax penalty. I don't have all the details, but one can google to find out.

  2. You need to file on time no matter what - but you point is well taken - there are lots of programs to manage situations for unemployment and the horizon of other distress circumstances.

  3. Great tips for taking care of all your tax issues. It seems there are a few things to keep in mind if you owe money.


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