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Owe taxes but your bank account is empty?

IRS may have a solution that fits your finances

By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun

7:25 AM EDT, April 17, 2012

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So the tax deadline is here and you don't have the money to pay the bill.

It's time to act, not panic. You might have more options than you know — courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service.

The agency has been easing up on financially strapped taxpayers and last month expanded its "Fresh Start" initiative, which allows some jobless workers to put off paying their taxes for six months without paying a stiff penalty.

"There are probably more options than most people are aware of," says Abe Schneier, senior technical manager with the American Institute of CPAs. "However, as anything with the IRS, there are limitations to taking advantage of it."

At this late stage, it's important not to put your head in the sand if you will have trouble paying. Ignoring the problem will only get you deeper in debt to the IRS.

Instead, check out these ways to meet your tax liability:

Payment postponement If you meet certain employment and income criteria, you can postpone paying tax bills of up to $50,000 until Oct. 15.

To qualify, you must have been out of work for at least 30 days in a row last year or so far this year. Or you can qualify if you're self-employed and saw your business income plunge by at least 25 percent last year.

Your income can't be more than $200,000 if filing jointly, or $100,000 if you're single or the head of a household.

The IRS also promises to waive the failure-to-pay penalty, which can add up. The penalty is 0.5 percent of the outstanding tax bill each month, not to exceed a total of 25 percent.

You will still have to pay interest — now at an annual rate of 3 percent — and any other penalties you might owe when paying up in mid-October.

To apply for the postponement, file Form 1127A.

"You have to qualify for it; it's not automatic," Schneier says. "The IRS will notify you if the application is not approved."

Barbara Weltman, author of "J.K. Lasser's 1001 Deductions and Tax Breaks," adds: "You still have to file your return. This just gives you more time to pay."

To get an extra six months to file, you must also request an extension, Weltman says.

Installment agreement The IRS recently made it easier to pay your tax bill on an installment plan.

Now those who owe up to $50,000 won't have to provide the agency with a burdensome financial statement. (Owe more, though, and you must file the paperwork. Or you can pay part of your tax liability to get under the $50,000 threshold and use the more streamlined process, the IRS says.)

Another bit of leniency: You now have the option of paying the tax over six years instead of five.

Request an installment agreement by filing Form 9465. Payments must be made by monthly debits from your bank account.

You'll pay a fee and, again, interest will be assessed. The IRS warns the installment plan will likely be more expensive than borrowing from the bank or paying the tax with a credit card.

A mini-extension Maybe you don't need years to catch up on your taxes. The IRS offers a short extension if you can pay the tax — with interest — in full within 120 days. It's not a new option, but it's a handy one for those who expect to come into some money soon.

You can apply using the Online Payment Agreement Application on the agency's website at irs.gov. If you owe more than $50,000, call the IRS at 800-829-1040.

Offer in compromise This is where the IRS realizes it's unlikely to get the full amount you owe and agrees to accept less.

"The IRS has gotten very open-minded in terms of who qualifies and how you qualify for the offer-in-compromise program," says Mark Steber, chief tax officer with Jackson Hewitt Tax Service.

The IRS recently doubled the requirements for eligibility. You now can qualify if you owe less than $50,000 and your income doesn't exceed $100,000.

Check out the publication for Form 656 to learn more details.

Tax experts say many people don't know of these various options, particularly the newer ones, because they don't get much publicity.

"These are good IRS programs and people are not taking advantage of them as they should be," Steber says.

So if you're having trouble meeting a tax obligation, see if one of these options can get you out of a jam.

"The worst thing you can do is put this off and worry about it later," Steber says.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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