Tax Amnesty Programs: The Complete Guide

Is tax amnesty really possible? Will the IRS or state government simply forgive unpaid tax you legitimately owe? While it may seem too good to be true, there have been numerous occasions where state and local governments launch programs offering just that. It’s often a last-ditch effort to boost their budgets and bring people into compliance with current tax laws.

Let’s take a closer look at tax amnesty programs and how they have worked in the past.

What is tax amnesty?

Amnesty is an official pardon for offenses. In the context of taxes, tax amnesty is an opportunity for a certain group of taxpayers to pay a smaller lump sum amount in exchange for forgiveness of the rest of their tax liability. The forgiven amount can include tax debts, civil penalties, and interest. Additionally, it often removes the risk of being criminally prosecuted if you come clean during the amnesty period. Although they sometimes sound similar, tax amnesty programs are not to be confused with tax credits, such as the Pennsylvania Tax Forgiveness credit.

While not currently offered on the federal level, states and cities have periodically opened up these programs for amnesty applications. They can help the governments to raise money because they entice a population of taxpayers to pay something when they would otherwise have paid nothing. It also helps people to resolve their understated tax liabilities, late tax returns, and income tax owed.

2019-2020 tax amnesty programs

Let’s take a look at a few of the 2019-2020 tax amnesty programs that have been recently put in place to give you a better idea of how they work:

StateNature of AmnestyAuthorityStatusTime PeriodTaxes CoveredApplicable Tax YearsPenalties WaivedInterest WaivedSpecial ProvisionsBack Taxes Collected
Santa Monica, CAAdministrativeCity Finance DepartmentEnded5/27/19 – 7/12/19City’s business license taxesAll tax periods prior to 1-May-1990%NoUnlicensed businesses that voluntarily register will receive a 90% penalty waiverEst. $200k
San Jose, CAAdministrativeCity Finance DepartmentIn Progress10/1/19 – 3/27/20City’s business license and certain other taxesTax liabilities between 10/1/2016 – 3/27/2020YesYes
ILStatutoryTax Delinquency Amnesty ActEnded10/1/19 – 11/15/19All taxes administered by the Illinois Department of RevenueAll tax periods ending after June 30, 2011, and prior to July 1, 2018YesYesEst. $175 million, Act. $237 million
ILStatutoryTax Delinquency Amnesty ActEnded10/1/19 – 11/15/19Franchise tax or license feeTax periods ending after March 15, 2008, and on or before June 30, 2019YesYes
NEAdministrativeDOR General Information Letter

(GIL) 1-19-2

Endedtill 1/20/2020State and local sales and use taxesState and local sales

taxes due since April 1, 2019

YesYesDoes not apply to sellers who are physically present in NE

California Amnesty Programs for Businesses

Santa Monica, California’s City’s Business License Taxes Amnesty Program ran from May 27, 2019, to July 12, 2019. It allowed unlicensed businesses to voluntarily register, have the city’s business license taxes covered,  and receive a 90% penalty waiver. Further, it applied to all tax periods prior to May 1, 2019. The City Finance Department of Santa Monica ended up collecting $200,000 in back taxes.

Additionally, the City Finance Department of San Jose, California has been running an amnesty program since October 1, 2019, and until March 27, 2020. It waives the penalties and interest on the city’s business license and certain other taxes.

Illinois Tax Delinquency Amnesty Act

As for a program targeted at individuals, Illinois ran the Tax Delinquency Amnesty Act from October 1, 2019, until November 15, 2019. It covered all taxes administered by the Illinois Department of Revenue for all tax periods that ended before July 1, 2018, and after June 30, 2011. All interest and penalties were also waived. The results? The state recovered an estimated $175 million in back taxes.

New Jersey Amnesty Act

New Jersey also ran a program from November 15, 2018, until January 15, 2019, which covered state tax liabilities for returns that had been due after February of 2009 but prior to September of 2019. The program waived half of the interest owed and all penalties.

See tax amnesty programs from 2018. 

What to look for in a tax amnesty program

If your state or city is running a tax amnesty program, there are a few main factors to look for:

  • The taxes covered: What type of taxes are being forgiven and under what conditions?
  • Penalties and interest: What portion of the penalties and interest will be forgiven?
  • Amnesty filing dates: When do you have to apply for the program?
  • Inclusion periods: What tax periods qualify for the program?

Be sure to look at these details carefully. You may also want to consult a trusted legal or financial advisor to determine if the program is a good fit for you.

How to find tax amnesty programs in your state

The IRS does not provide a tax amnesty program for Americans on a federal level. Instead, the programs are issued and managed on a state level. You can search for them by state or city. The Council on State Taxation and Sales Tax Institute are good sources for up-to-date information. It’s also a good idea to check with your state and local authorities.

What if you don’t qualify for tax amnesty?

If you have tax debt but don’t qualify for a tax amnesty program, you may still qualify for a tax relief program. Tax relief programs are provided by the IRS and offer many ways to settle your debt. You may find a short- or long-term installment plan that works well for you. On the other hand, if there’s no way you can repay your debt, an offer in compromise might be the right option. Or if you just can’t pay anything now due to economic hardship, you may be able to qualify for currently not collectible (CNC) status.

Hire a tax debt relief expert

Taxes can be complicated and when you fall behind, the situation only gets more difficult. It can help to have a tax relief company on your side. The best tax relief companies have tax lawyers and enrolled agents on staff, provide a money-back guarantee and charge competitive rates.

Tax relief firms exist just for that purpose. They work with clients to understand their options and find the best solution. Oftentimes, they can help you save and ensure your interests are protected. If you’re not sure who to contact, review and compare our top recommended debt relief firms below.