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Tax Returns Taxpayer Representation

Unfiled Tax Returns

Do you have past due tax returns? If so, you’re not alone. While the IRS does not publish statistics on this, nor are they really able to track this number, but my own research and statistical analysis (because I’m a numbers geek and do stuff like that), estimates that there are between 5 and 8 million outstanding personal income tax returns in the United States for the past three years alone.

If you owe a tax debt to the government and are seeking to get that situation resolved, you will first need to file any missing returns. The IRS will NOT negotiate a payment plan or a reduced settlement if you have past due tax returns. The reason for this is pretty simple: If you don’t file the returns, they don’t know how much you really owe.

While any tax preparer, CPA, or Enrolled Agent can probably assist you with filing your past due tax returns, it is important to note that many of these tax preparers focus their practices solely on current year tax return filings. Since the tax laws change literally every year, it’s a daunting task just to keep up with the tax code for the current year, so many tax preparers don’t bother trying to keep up with prior year tax matters.

A firm that specializes in taxpayer representation, on the other hand, often does exactly the opposite. Many of these firms don’t even offer current year tax return preparation. Since the tax code as applicable to prior years is fixed and no longer changes, they can maintain their skills and knowledge on prior years quite readily since they focus almost exclusively on preparing older tax returns. This lack of change in the past tax code and their experience preparing these returns also lets them complete them fairly quickly, since they don’t have to spend time researching the old laws, and therefore you don’t have to pay for that research time, keeping their fees reasonable for this sort of service.

Search our directory of taxpayer representation firms to find a tax professional in your area that specializes in preparing back tax returns.

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Taxpayer Representation

IRS Penalty Abatement Reasonable Cause Criteria

One of the most common questions we are asked has to do with the reduction of interest and penalties on IRS accounts. Any reader of this blog knows that I am adamant about correcting the myths, lies, and half-truths perpetuated by tax resolution salespeople, and the IRS penalty abatement is one of the things least understood and grossly oversold by unlicensed salespeople at large, national tax resolution companies.

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: There is no reasonable cause interest abatement application process within the IRS. It simply doesn’t exist, period. If somebody is telling you they can get your interest reduced, you’re straight up being lied to, and you should seek assistance elsewhere.

There are two, and precisely two, instances in which interest is reduced:

  1. Any IRS employee gives you false information, which you acted on and resulted in the interest. This is one reason why all IRS correspondence should be conducted and follow up in writing.
  2. Since interest is calculated based on the tax liability, if an amended return is filed and the tax itself is lowered, then the interest is also reduced.

Now, on to penalties. The IRS charges dozens of different types of penalties, but the three that we most commonly talk about are the late filing penalty, the late payment penalty, and the penalty for not making Federal Tax Deposits. These three penalties combined can add a whopping 65% to your total IRS bill. If your tax debt is more than two years old, you’ve maxed out all these penalties, and therefore over half your total debt is penalties.

The IRS does actually have a compassionate side, and it’s generally found in the penalty abatement process. Penalty abatement applications can also be appealed if initially denied, so you can always get a second set of eyeballs on the issue. The thing to keep in mind is that the IRS has very strict guidelines for granting penalty abatements, and these guidelines are referred to as “reasonable cause criteria”.

It should be noted up front that “we didn’t have the money” is NOT a reasonable cause criteria. A drop in revenue, by itself, is insufficient argument for obtaining penalty relief. Any request for penalty abatement simply citing the economic recession will be immediately denied.

Why is this? Here is the IRS’ logic: You made the money, and should have paid the taxes at the time on that money. If you are self-employed and receive a check, then you HAD the money, you simply didn’t give the IRS their chunk of it. Same goes with payroll taxes, particularly trust fund taxes (money you withhold from employee paychecks for income tax and Medicare/Social Security): If you had the expectation to pay some amount of wage, then you theoretically HAD the money sitting somewhere to pay that person, and should have withheld it and turned it over to the IRS. If you couldn’t cover the taxes, you shouldn’t have had the employee and should have laid people off or cut back their hours.

There are ways to argue around this, and we have done so very successfully, but there has to be some other circumstance. For example, you had the money to pay the tax, but paying the tax instead of something else would have created an “undue hardship”. Examples could include a large medical expense that unpaid would have left a condition untreated, or a court ordered payment that would have resulted in other legal consequences, or a bill such as a large automobile repair which would have left you unable to work and resulted in job loss. These arguments are difficult to make and require significantly more work than standard reasonable cause criteria applications, but they CAN be won.

The primary IRS penalty abatement reasonable cause criteria center around natural disasters, loss or destruction of vital business records, bad advice from the IRS or an accounting professional, criminal activity, medical issues, substance abuse problems, and other serious circumstances.

A couple years ago I developed a standard list of questions to ask clients to assist me in preparing their penalty abatement. This list of questions should be given some serious thought before requesting penalty abatement, as you are more likely to get what you want if it covers one of these areas:

  • Were any business records lost or destroyed?
  • Were there any circumstances that led to a substantial drop in collecting on accounts receivable?
  • Was there any transition in the business that lead to the failure to pay taxes?
  • Was there a death or serious illness that directly affected the business or personal wages?
  • Was there any embezzlement of funds, theft of valuable property, or identity theft?
  • Were there any alcohol or drug abuse issues that affected the business or wage earning capability?
  • Was there a natural disaster that impacted you or your business?
  • Did you rely on the advice of a CPA or IRS employee in making tax decisions?
  • Were there any circumstances that created substantial financial hardship, to the point where your business was close to going bankrupt?

These questions cover all of the IRS reasonable cause criteria to one extent or another, so finding an answer to your personal or business situation that covers one or more of these questions is the key to a successful penalty abatement application.

If you would like a professional review of your own situation to determine eligibility for penalty abatement, simply request a case review from one of the licensed professional tax firms in our directory.