Back Taxes: How They Accumulate and How to Resolve


Back taxes are unpaid taxes from previous years that accumulate interest and penalties. Failure to address back taxes can lead to serious consequences, including tax liens, wage garnishment, or even imprisonment. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the world of back taxes, exploring what they are, the consequences of not paying them, and how to resolve this financial burden.

Understanding back taxes

Back taxes, a term that often strikes fear into the hearts of taxpayers, refer to unpaid taxes from a prior year. They can result from various reasons, including failing to file a return, neglecting to report all income earned during the tax year, or filing a return but not paying the tax liability.

Penalties and interest

When back taxes are left unpaid, they begin to accrue penalties and interest. The failure-to-file penalty is a significant concern, as it amounts to 0.5% of the unpaid taxes every month, or part thereof, until the tax is paid in full or until the penalty reaches 25% of the total tax owed.

In addition to penalties, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) charges interest on the unpaid amount. The interest rate fluctuates quarterly, and as of the third quarter of 2020, it stands at 3%. Over time, the total tax debt can significantly increase due to these penalties and interest, making it even more challenging to settle.

The consequences of unpaid back taxes (pros and cons)

Ignoring back taxes can lead to severe repercussions, including legal actions by tax authorities. Let’s explore some of the potential consequences:

Weigh the risks and benefits

Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks to consider.

  • Pay back less than what you owe
  • Become debt-free in less time
  • Avoid bankruptcy
  • Negative impact on credit score
  • Additional fee accrual
  • Remains on your credit history for 7 years

Tax liens

A tax lien is a legal claim by a government entity against a noncompliant taxpayer’s assets. Tax liens are a last resort to force an individual or business to pay back taxes. Federal and state governments may place tax liens for unpaid income taxes, while local governments may do so for unpaid local income taxes or property taxes.

A tax lien doesn’t necessarily mean that the asset will be sold. Instead, it gives the tax authority priority in claiming the individual’s or business’s property over other creditors. It also prevents the taxpayer from selling or refinancing assets with liens attached.

If the tax liability remains unpaid, the government can use a tax levy to seize the taxpayer’s assets legally. A lien secures the government’s interest in the property, while a levy allows the government to seize and sell the property to pay the tax debt.

Wage garnishment and levies

The IRS has the power to garnish a taxpayer’s wages and levy their financial accounts, seizing up to the total amount of taxes owed. Wage garnishment can severely impact an individual’s financial well-being, as a significant portion of their income is taken to cover the unpaid taxes.

A levy, on the other hand, can result in the seizure of various assets, including bank accounts, investment accounts, automobiles, and real property. It’s a more aggressive measure that the government employs to collect the money it’s owed.

Private collection agencies

In 2016, the IRS outsourced the collection of unpaid back taxes to private collection agencies. While this can be beneficial in some cases, it’s essential to understand your rights and options when dealing with these agencies.

Resolving back taxes

Resolving back taxes is crucial to avoid the potentially devastating consequences mentioned above. Taxpayers facing this issue have several options:

Voluntary disclosure program

In some cases, the tax authority may offer a voluntary disclosure program. This program allows taxpayers to come forward, report their unreported income, and settle their tax debts without facing criminal charges. It can provide a way for individuals to address their back taxes while avoiding imprisonment.

Offer in compromise

Taxpayers who lack the means to repay their entire tax debt may negotiate a lesser settlement through an Offer in Compromise (OIC). An OIC is an agreement between the taxpayer and the IRS that allows the taxpayer to pay a reduced amount, often a fraction of their total tax debt. To qualify for an OIC, the taxpayer must demonstrate financial hardship or an inability to pay the full amount.

Dealing with back taxes

Dealing with back taxes can be a complex process, and taxpayers may wonder how to navigate it effectively. Below, we’ll explore some practical steps and examples to help you address back taxes successfully.

Example: Handling unpaid federal back taxes

Suppose you owe back taxes to the federal government. Let’s say you failed to file your tax return for the 2020 tax year. The IRS has assessed your tax liability, and you now owe $5,000 in back taxes, including penalties and interest.

Here’s what you can do:

1. File your missing tax return: First, you need to file your missing tax return for the 2020 tax year. Even if you can’t pay the full amount immediately, it’s crucial to submit the return to avoid additional penalties.

2. Explore payment options: The IRS offers various payment options for taxpayers, such as installment agreements and offers in compromise. An installment agreement allows you to pay your back taxes in manageable monthly installments. An offer in compromise may enable you to settle your debt for less than the full amount if you can demonstrate financial hardship.

3. Contact the IRS: Reach out to the IRS as soon as possible. They can provide guidance on available options and help you avoid further legal actions.

Example: State back taxes and tax liens

Now, let’s consider a scenario involving state back taxes and the potential imposition of a tax lien. You owe $7,000 in unpaid state income taxes from the 2019 tax year. Your state’s tax authority has placed a tax lien on your property as a result.

Here’s what you can do:

1. Pay the outstanding taxes: Start by paying the outstanding state income taxes. Once the debt is satisfied, you can request the removal of the tax lien.

2. Negotiate with the state tax authority: In some cases, you might be able to negotiate with the state tax authority to remove the lien once you’ve made a substantial payment towards the owed taxes.

3. Request a release of the lien: After paying off your back taxes, you can formally request a release of the tax lien. The state tax authority will issue a release document that you can use to clear the title of your property.

These are just a few examples of how to handle back taxes in different situations. It’s essential to consult with a tax professional or attorney for personalized guidance based on your specific circumstances.


In conclusion, dealing with back taxes is a critical financial matter that requires prompt and thoughtful action. Ignoring this issue can lead to severe consequences, affecting your financial stability and overall well-being. To address back taxes effectively, it’s essential to understand your options, including voluntary disclosure programs and Offers in Compromise. Seeking professional guidance from a tax attorney or financial advisor can also be invaluable in navigating the complexities of resolving back taxes.

Frequently asked questions

What are the common reasons for having back taxes?

Common reasons for having back taxes include failing to file a tax return, neglecting to report all income, and not paying the tax liability in a timely manner. These situations can result in unpaid taxes from previous years.

How do penalties and interest accrue on back taxes?

Penalties and interest on back taxes accrue over time. The failure-to-file penalty can amount to 0.5% of the unpaid taxes every month, with interest charges also applied. The interest rate fluctuates quarterly and can significantly increase the total tax debt.

What are the consequences of ignoring back taxes?

Ignoring back taxes can lead to serious consequences, including tax liens, wage garnishment, or even imprisonment. Tax authorities may take legal actions to collect unpaid taxes, which can have a significant impact on individuals and businesses.

How can taxpayers resolve their back taxes?

Taxpayers have several options to resolve back taxes. They can participate in a voluntary disclosure program to report unreported income and settle their tax debts. Another option is an Offer in Compromise, allowing them to pay a reduced amount of the total tax debt based on financial hardship.

What should I do if I have unpaid state back taxes and a tax lien?

If you have unpaid state back taxes and a tax lien, it’s essential to pay the outstanding taxes to satisfy the debt. You can negotiate with the state tax authority to remove the lien once you’ve made substantial payments. After paying off your back taxes, you can formally request a release of the tax lien to clear the title of your property.

Key takeaways

  • Back taxes are unpaid taxes from prior years that accrue penalties and interest.
  • Failure to address back taxes can lead to serious legal action, including tax liens, wage garnishment, or even imprisonment.
  • Options for resolving back taxes include voluntary disclosure programs and Offers in Compromise.
View article sources
  1. How Do I Know If I Owe Back Taxes? – SuperMoney
  2. Check your federal or state tax refund status –
  3. What To Do If Your Small Business Owes Back Taxes? – SuperMoney
  4. IRS Tax Relief Programs To Pay Off Back Taxes – SuperMoney