How do you decide if an Offer In Compromise is a good way to resolve your IRS debt?

In the past couple of years, the IRS has dramatically changed its formula for calculating the amount a taxpayer must pay to settle a tax debt.  Fundamentally, the changes were favorable for the taxpayer and the IRS appears to better understand that acceptance of an Offer in Compromise likely results in collection of more tax dollars than simply continuing to enforce collection efforts through levies and lien filings.  However, the movement towards a more favorable calculation by the IRS of the taxpayer’s ability to pay, and thus the taxpayer’s reasonable collection potential, has actually been further adjusted in a manner that removes some of the initial excitement about formula changes to Offer calculations.

The basis of acceptance of most Offers in Compromise is doubt as to collectability.  Basically, the IRS performs an analysis of a taxpayer’s financial situation and if the taxpayer’s ability to pay is less than the amount they owe, then the taxpayer could theoretically qualify for an Offer in Compromise settlement.  The ability to pay analysis consists of the calculation of both a taxpayer’s equity in assets and “future income potential.”

A taxpayer’s future income potential for a settlement is typically calculated by performing a monthly financial analysis in which the IRS compares gross earnings to allowable expenses to determine if there is any excess monthly income remaining from which the taxpayer could pay the IRS.  If so, this excess income was historically multiplied by a factor – either 48 or 60, to determine the future income potential portion of a settlement Offer.  The taxpayer would be allowed to multiply the excess monthly income by 48 if the Offer was for a lump sum settlement, and 60 if the payments were to be made over a couple of years.

Recently, a favorable adjustment was made to the multiplier.  Rather than asking the taxpayer to multiply excess income over expenses by 48 for a lump sum Offer, the IRS dramatically adjusted this number down to 12!  And, rather than multiplying by 60 for a short term payment Offer over up to a couple of years, the multiplier was altered to 24! 

This seemed almost too good to be true. And in part, it was. The IRS clarified, through the adoption of guidance in its Internal Revenue Manual, that even if a taxpayer calculates that he or she qualifies under the new formula, the taxpayer will not qualify for a settlement Offer if the IRS could collect the entire debt through establishment of an Installment Agreement over the statutory period of collections, unless there are special circumstances.

What this means is that at the time of analyzing a taxpayer’s situation, it is important to be aware that even though the formula indicates a taxpayer would qualify for a settlement, if the monthly excess income over expenses would retire the debt under the statute of limitations, then the taxpayer is wasting time submitting an Offer.  Furthermore, the taxpayer will be putting the statute of limitations for collection on hold while the defective Offer is under review, and for a period of time after rejection.

Here’s a simple example of how this would work.  Assume a taxpayer owes $50,000 in tax debt.  If the taxpayer just filed the return, the IRS will have 10 years, or 120 months to collect the debt, with exceptions for extensions of time – such as when an Offer is filed. If the taxpayer has no equity in assets, but a financial analysis shows an ability to pay $1,000 a month, the taxpayer might think a lump sum Offer would be a good way to put the debt to rest forever.  Under the lump sum analysis, the future income potential would be $1,000 x 12 or $12,000.  With no equity in assets, this is less than the tax debt and would make this look viable.  Even the short term Offer looks good as the future income potential would be $1,000 x 24 or $24,000.  The settlement would be paid over 24 months, or $1,000 per month.

The reality in the above example is that the Offer will be rejected, absent special circumstances, because the monthly future income potential of $1,000 multiplied by the life of the collection statute exceeds the tax debt as follows: $1,000 x 120 months (or 10 years as the return was just filed) = $120,000.  The exception to this is if special circumstances exist as disclosed on submission of the Offer.  Generally, special circumstances would include creation of economic hardship, or alternatively, compelling public policy or equity factors, such as health concerns or age, could tip the analysis in favor of settlement, in spite of the above.

Fundamentally, and especially because of the fact that the statute of limitations is placed on hold during a lengthy analysis period (several months), a taxpayer has to be careful to review their particular situation so that submission of an Offer in Compromise doesn’t do more harm than good.  If you would like assistance with your tax matter, or the tax situation of a client, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Partial Payment Installment Agreements

Since its inception in 2005, this collection resolution has become a common way to resolve IRS problems in our office.  Given the fact that the Offer in Compromise program only solves a relatively few taxpayers’ problems (offer acceptance has been fewer than 15,000 Offers accepted a year in the past few years), it is necessary to explore other resolutions when assisting a taxpayer with a delinquent balance.

In 2005 Congress allowed the IRS to enter into installment agreements that only partially pay a tax liability.  This was accomplished by amending Internal Revenue Code section 6159. It is Congress’ reference to “partial collection” of the tax debt that caused the IRS to label this type of agreement Partial Payment Installment Agreement (PPIA).

The statute requires that in order to enter into one of these agreements, the IRS must “review the agreement at least once every 2 years.” Congress was balancing the need to collect revenue now by entering into a payment agreement with a taxpayer that would not fully pay the debt, against the possibility that the taxpayer may have more means to pay later.  As such, the IRS will review the taxpayer’s status at a later date to determine if he or she can pay more.

A few things have to happen in order to establish a PPIA.  The taxpayer must complete a full financial analysis to determine an ability to pay.  During the course of this financial analysis, the IRS will review the taxpayer’s equity in assets.  Because the PPIA will not pay the entire debt based on the payment amount at establishment, the IRS will expect the taxpayer to either liquidate or borrow against equity in assets before establishing a PPIA.  It is not an absolute requirement that the equity be borrowed against or liquidated; however, the taxpayer must seek to take these actions before the PPIA will be established.

In order to understand the concern of the government when establishing a PPIA, it is important to understand the statute of limitations for collection of a tax debt. An important date in the analysis of any delinquent taxpayer’s tax debt is the Collection Statute Expiration Date

(CSED).  This is the date on which the IRS loses the ability to collect a tax debt, or the collection statute of limitations.  This date is generally 10 years from the date of assessment, which is when the tax return is processed or the IRS creates a balance for the taxpayer.  Some actions stop the running of this statute, such as the filing of a bankruptcy, a submission of an Offer in Compromise, or a variety of appeal actions before the IRS. Therefore, you can’t assume that you know the exact date of the CSED based on a return filing date.

After equity in assets is addressed, the IRS will review the taxpayer’s future income potential.  This number is generally the taxpayer’s gross monthly income less allowable expenses.  If equity is addressed and the taxpayer has some ability to pay, but not enough to fully pay the tax debt before the CSED, then the taxpayer would generally qualify for a PPIA.

A simple example would be a taxpayer that owes the IRS $50,000.  If that taxpayer had $20,000 of equity in her home, she would be expected to try to establish she can’t borrow against it.  If this is the case, then the IRS would look at her future income potential.  If the CSED is 60 months and the taxpayer can pay $300 per month, the IRS would establish a PPIA knowing that at the time of establishment of the PPIA, the taxpayer would only pay $300×60 = $18,000.  The IRS would review the agreement at least every two years to determine if the taxpayer could pay more.

In the above example, and all PPIAs, once the CSED expires, all remaining tax debt is closed out and not collected by the IRS.  In other words, the taxpayer effectively pays less than the total tax debt, though there is no technical settlement.

The PPIA is a good option that removes many taxpayers from risk of enforcement actions like levy and seizure.  A tax lien is typically filed at the time of establishment of the PPIA if one has not already been filed.  Further, like many other resolutions, if the taxpayer fails to remain compliant with his return filings and current year tax payments, he will default the PPIA even if he is making payments.

Should you have questions about Partial Payment Installment Agreements or any other resolution options for delinquent IRS matters, feel free to contact our office.