IRS Fresh Start Initiative

03/11/2012

On March 7, 2012, the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS") announced a major expansion of its “Fresh Start” initiative.  This initiative is designed to assist struggling taxpayers by taking steps to provide new penalty relief to the unemployed and making Installment Agreements available to more people.

Penalty Relief

A six-month grace period on failure-to-pay penalties will be made available to certain wage earners and self-employed individuals. The request for an extension of time to pay will result in relief from the failure to pay penalty for tax year 2011 only if the tax, interest and any other penalties are fully paid by Oct. 15, 2012.

The penalty relief will be available to two categories of taxpayers:

  • Wage earners who have been unemployed at least 30 consecutive days during 2011 or in 2012 up to the April 17 deadline for filing a federal tax return this year.
  • Self-employed individuals who experienced a 25 percent or greater reduction in business income in 2011 due to the economy.

This penalty relief is subject to income limits. A taxpayer’s income must not exceed $200,000 if he or she files as married filing jointly or not exceed $100,000 if he or she files as single or head of household. This penalty relief is also restricted to taxpayers whose calendar year 2011 balance due does not exceed $50,000.

Taxpayers meeting the eligibility criteria will need to complete a new Form 1127A to seek the 2011 penalty relief. The new form is available on irs.gov.

The failure-to-pay penalty is generally 1/2 of 1% per month with an upper limit of 25 percent. Under this new relief, taxpayers can avoid that penalty until Oct. 15, 2012, which is six months beyond this year’s filing deadline. However, the IRS is still legally required to charge interest on unpaid back taxes and does not have the authority to waive this charge, which is currently 3% on an annual basis.

Even with the new penalty relief becoming available, the IRS strongly encourages taxpayers to file their returns on time by April 17 or file for an extension. Failure-to-file penalties applied to unpaid taxes remain in effect and are generally 5% per month, also with a 25%cap.

Installment Agreements

The initiative also provides that the threshold for using an installment agreement without having to supply the IRS with a financial statement has been raised from $25,000 to $50,000. This is a significant reduction in taxpayer burden.

Taxpayers who owe up to $50,000 in back taxes will now be able to enter into a streamlined agreement with the IRS that stretches the payment out over a series of months or years. The maximum term for streamlined installment agreements has also been raised to 72 months from the current 60-month maximum.

Taxpayers seeking installment agreements exceeding $50,000 will still need to supply the IRS with a Collection Information Statement (Form 433-A or Form 433-B). Taxpayers may also pay down their balance due to $50,000 or less to take advantage of this payment option.

An installment agreement is an option for those who cannot pay their entire tax bills by the due date. Penalties are reduced, although interest continues to accrue on the outstanding balance. In order to qualify for the new expanded streamlined installment agreement, a taxpayer must agree to monthly direct debit payments.

Offers in Compromise

Previously, the Fresh Start initiative established a new streamlined approach for Offers in Compromise to cover a larger group of struggling taxpayers. An offer-in-compromise is an agreement between a taxpayer and the IRS that settles the taxpayer’s tax liabilities for less than the full amount owed.