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What to Do If You Owe Back Taxes but Can’t Pay: Practical Steps for Relief

Owing back taxes to the IRS can be a stressful and overwhelming situation. The pressure of unpaid taxes can lead to anxiety, sleepless nights, and uncertainty about the future. However, it’s essential to remember that you’re not alone, and there are steps you can take to navigate this challenging situation. In this blog, we’ll guide you through practical steps to consider if you find yourself in a position where you owe back taxes but can’t pay them immediately.

Understanding Your Options

1. Stay Calm and Communicate:

The first step is to remain calm and avoid panicking. Ignoring the issue won’t make it go away; instead, it can lead to more severe consequences. The IRS is often willing to work with taxpayers who are upfront about their financial difficulties. Contact the IRS and explain your situation to explore possible options.

2. Installment Agreements:

If you can’t pay your tax bill in full, consider setting up an installment agreement. This allows you to pay off your debt in smaller, manageable monthly payments. Keep in mind that there might be setup fees, interest, and penalties associated with installment agreements.

3. Offer in Compromise:

In some cases, you may qualify for an Offer in Compromise (OIC). This program allows you to settle your tax debt for less than the total amount owed if you can prove that paying the full amount would cause you financial hardship. Be prepared for a rigorous qualification process and provide accurate financial information.

4. Temporary Delay:

If your financial situation is dire, you can request a temporary delay in collections. This option will temporarily suspend collection activities, giving you time to improve your financial situation.

5. Currently Not Collectible:

If your financial situation is so dire that even an installment agreement isn’t feasible, you might qualify for “Currently Not Collectible” status. This means the IRS agrees to temporarily halt collection activities due to your financial hardship. Keep in mind that penalties and interest will continue to accrue during this time.

6. Consult a Tax Professional:

Navigating the IRS and its various relief programs can be complex. Consulting a tax professional who specializes in tax debt relief can provide expert guidance tailored to your situation.

Key Considerations

1. Timely Filing:

Even if you can’t pay your taxes, it’s crucial to file your tax return on time. Failure-to-file penalties are typically more severe than failure-to-pay penalties.

2. Penalties and Interest:

Understand that penalties and interest will continue to accrue until your tax debt is paid in full. This underscores the importance of addressing your tax debt as soon as possible.

3. Keep Records:

Maintain accurate records of all communication with the IRS, including dates, names, and details of conversations. This documentation can be invaluable if any issues arise later.

4. Review Your Withholding:

Consider adjusting your withholding to prevent future tax debts. A tax professional can help you determine the appropriate withholding to avoid underpayment.


Facing back tax debt when you can’t afford to pay can feel overwhelming, but remember that there are options available to you. The key is to take proactive steps and communicate with the IRS as soon as possible. Whether you opt for an installment agreement, Offer in Compromise, or another relief option, seeking professional advice and adhering to the necessary steps will help you find a path to financial relief. By staying informed, organized, and proactive, you can regain control of your financial situation and work towards a future free from the burden of back taxes.

Remember, each individual’s situation is unique, and it’s crucial to consult with a tax professional before making any decisions related to your tax debt.

You can click here or call (800) 875-5509 to be connected with a verified partner of IRS Fresh Start Initiative.

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