Payment Alternatives in the Covid Era: A Humble Plea for Easier Access to Installment Agreements

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Much of the focus in the low-income tax sphere has been focused on CARES Act provisions, and especially ensuring that low-income individuals receive the full “Economic Impact Payment” (EIP) they are entitled to. This is obviously an imminent issue, especially because the IRS has largely stopped collection activities until at least mid-July as part of the “people-first” initiative. Eventually, however, with the aftershocks to the economy I anticipate the focus will shift to collection issues.

To that end, I’d like to focus on an issue that practitioners come across frequently: frustration with installment agreements (IAs) (see PT posts here and here). Specifically, I want to look at how the IRS can systematically make the process easier and more affordable by expanding access to “streamlined” 84-month IAs.

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Even before the pandemic the IRS was not exactly renowned for its response time at its service centers. A cocktail of poisons can be cited for the delays that often ensued -foremost to my mind are budget cuts, technology woes, and constant changes in tax law. I think it is fair to say that even with a Congressional fix to one or more of these issues in the short-to-medium term the IRS is going to be struggling to deal with the mountain of paperwork that has piled up over the last few months. To ameliorate this situation, the IRS should focus on systemic fixes wherever possible. Increasing access to streamlined installment agreements could provide a small but important win for all parties: bringing taxpayers to the table and dollars to the fisc.

Why Installment Agreements?

An IA may seem like a fairly modest avenue of relief for those in bad financial shape. And, when compared to an Offer in Compromise (OIC) or Currently Not Collectible (CNC), it certainly is. However, in my experience there is a fairly significant pool of low-income taxpayers that do not have a viable OIC/CNC route, and are left with IAs as their only option. Most of the individuals I work with insist on the lowest monthly payment amount, even if it increases the term of the agreement (and thus total amount paid through interest and penalties).

Frequently, even when paid over 72 months the terms seem unaffordable to the taxpayer -although they technically might not experience what the IRS would consider a “hardship” in agreeing to it. This is to say nothing of the multitude of taxpayers that enter into IAs that are unaffordable even by the IRS’s own standards (see 2019 NTA Report “Most Serious Problem #15”)

Many taxpayers simply want to know what their rights and obligations are -often, they just want to know if they should worry about coming home to a cleaned-out bank account one day. Where the IRS has already issued a Collection Due Process letter (and the vast majority are not responded to (See Keith’s article in Tax Notes here (subscription required)), I cannot say with any real level of certainty whether a levy may be imminent. Entering an IA is one way to get taxpayers back on a track where their rights and obligations are known. Apart from reducing the failure to pay penalty rate (see IRC 6651(h)), putting the taxpayer in compliance (potentially allowing for “First Time Abatement” relief), the biggest benefit to an IA may be the reduction in taxpayer anxiety: when you’re in an IA, no levy can be made on the tax years covered (see IRC 6331(k)(2)(C)). Anecdotally, I’d say this is the driving factor for the majority of IAs that I assist clients with.

Why 84 Month Installment Agreements?

I’m betting there are a few practitioners out there reading this and thinking, “if your client legitimately cannot afford to pay over 72 months, it is your duty as their attorney to prove that to the IRS. If you’re doing your job well, you’d get them into a PPIA or some sort of resolution with the IRS.” The point that you should advocate zealously for your client is certainly well-taken. Still, taxpayers are (mostly) living in the IRS’s world with IAs and if the IRS employee isn’t buying what you’re selling you don’t have a whole lot of recourse. Yes, you can go to the Tax Court if the IA is part of a CDP hearing, but the discretion to accept or reject mostly remains with the IRS. And in my experience working with the low-income taxpayers, exercise of that discretion can be fairly rigid. Oftentimes that discretion isn’t much more than a look at “what does the IRM say” with a default of “reject if I can’t find a clear answer.” A clear answer of “accept if it will full-pay in 84 months” would speed up and simplify the process for many taxpayers.

Further, and more importantly, a streamlined 84-month IA would obviate the need for submitting financials (generally a Form 433-A or Form 433-F). There are any number of reasons why not having to submit such financials would be appealing to a taxpayer, but there is one rather big one that, as a practitioner, I can vouch for: the frequent difficulty in getting that information from many low-to-moderate income taxpayers in a timely manner. Not having to submit such financials would greatly speed up the process and result in more case closings.

84 months might seem like an arbitrary number, but it would build on an existing IRS program -hopefully making it easier for the IRS to implement in the process. In what seems like ages ago (2018), the IRS provided “expanded criteria” for who could get a “streamlined” IA. The expanded criteria allowed streamlined IAs for individual taxpayers that owed between $50,000 and $100,000 who would agree to pay over 84 months, or the duration of the CSED, whichever was shorter.

But somewhat mind-bogglingly, for taxpayers that owe less than $50,000 (which are likely to be lower-income taxpayers) the expanded criteria doesn’t apply. However, and in a strange twist, if your tax liability was being serviced by a Private Debt Collection Agency (PDCA) you could enter an 84-month plan regardless of the size of your debt (note that this was only made possible because of a the “Taxpayer First Act.” See H.R. 3151 at sec 1205). In other words, there was a benefit to working with a PDCA rather than the IRS to settle your debts. This seemingly arbitrary distinction was noted by TIGTA in a report here (at page 26 of the report). I note in passing that the TIGTA report cites to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights as one reason why this arrangement should be changed.

Certainly, the IRS may have legitimate concerns about entering IAs that span so long a period of time -remember, the CSED is still ticking away while you’re in an IA (see IRC 6331(k)(3)(B)). There is the serious chance that as the CSED nears, the taxpayer will just default and disappear. But that problem exists with equal or greater force for the relatively large tax debts that the IRS already allows 84-month plans for. If anything, a tax debt of $10,000 that may run out the clock with $2,000 remaining should be of less concern than a tax debt of $100,000 with $20,000 remaining. 

The IRS is going to have to make some changes, as we all are, to adapt to the realities of the pandemic and post-pandemic world. The first changes should be the easy ones. And this change, to me, represents extremely low-hanging fruit for the IRS. There is no statutory reason why they cannot include liabilities below $50,000 to be allowed streamlined 84-month IAs. There is no policy reason why the IRS should make it easier for PDCAs to collect than the IRS itself. There is no reason why the IRS should disadvantage taxpayers that are not assigned to PDCAs, or those with debts less than $50,000. There is, in short, no reason that I can think of not to expand the 84-month IA to smaller debts.

Caleb Smith About Caleb Smith

Caleb Smith is Visiting Associate Clinical Professor and the Director of the Ronald M. Mankoff Tax Clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School. Caleb has worked at Low-Income Taxpayer Clinics on both coasts and the Midwest, most recently completing a fellowship at Harvard Law School's Federal Tax Clinic. Prior to law school Caleb was the Tax Program Manager at Minnesota's largest Volunteer Income Tax Assistance organization, where he continues to remain engaged as an instructor and volunteer today.

Comments

  1. Kenneth H. Ryesky says

    I still have my original “Winnie the Pooh” series by A. A. Milne from when I was a little boy (E. P. Dutton & Co., printed in 1950). On page 55 of the first book of the four, “When We Were Very Young,” is a poem entitled “The King’s Breakfast,” which starts like this:

    “The King asked
    The Queen, and
    The Queen asked
    The Dairymaid:
    ‘Could we have some butter for
    The Royal slice of bread?’
    The Queen asked the Dairymaid,
    The Dairymaid
    Said, ‘Certainly,
    I’ll go and tell the cow
    Now
    Before she goes to bed.'”

    [Complete text:
    https://2005-09.newenglishreview.org/blog_direct_link.cfm?blog_id=24803 ]

    The King eventually gets his butter, but the process goes from King to Queen to Dairymaid to Cow. The Cow then sends a flippant counterproposal for marmalade back to Dairymaid to Queen to King, who rejects the marmalade idea and insists on butter; the Queen conveys this to the Dairymaid, who persuades the Cow to backpedal, sending the Dairymaid back to the Queen with milk and butter for the King’s breakfast.

    As prescribed in Treas. Reg. § 601.601(a)(1), the IRS engages in analogous back-and-forth with the Treasury whenever rulemaking is to be done.

    If it were pre-WuFlu era, I would say that the IRS would be unlikely to expeditiously go along the route suggested by Caleb, but would be doing a back-and-forth with the Treasury and might, just maybe, come up with a limited version after some bureaucrat realizes that backlog numbers could be made to look better by such a move. Unless, of course, Congress would legislate a directive for the IRS to do what Caleb suggests.

    But the CoronaVirus seems to be a cataclysmic event that will permanently alter all of civilization as we have known it; perhaps the IRS and Treasury people might, just maybe, decide to get efficient.

    One can only hope and pray, but would be ill-advised to lay down any wagers.

  2. The 84 month installment agreements have certainly made it easier for many taxpayers in my practice. It saves the hassle of preparing a financial for every taxpayer that finds themselves wandering past the $50,000 streamline threshold.

    The IRS has legitimate concerns about expiring CSEDs and financial disclosure. Perhaps there can be modified installment agreement where the taxpayer agrees to extend the CSED as part of the installment agreement.

    There could also be an “streamlined” disclosure where the taxpayer merely lists assets and income sources. This can eliminate the need to report account balances, tabulate expenses, provide a P&L, and do all the other things that make a 433-F or 433-A time consuming or complicated. The typical taxpayer will merely have to say, “I work at employer X, my spouse works at employer Y. We both occasionally get 1099 income from Uber. We bank at Bank A, have a 401(k) with Z, and own a home in County B.” With this disclosure, the IRS gets all the potential levy sources and will know where to file a tax lien. There is no need to do things like verify expenses or argue over income when a taxpayer’s income fluctuates.

    Of course some taxpayers require extra attention. ACS is not really equipped to deal with these taxpayers anyway and Revenue Officers will need to step in and handle these cases.

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