5 key tips if you owe back taxes to the IRS

You never expected to owe back taxes to the IRS. It just happened due to a series of oversights.

You don't think it was fraud -- there was never any intent to defraud the government -- but you also know that the IRS has a lot of power. You want this to go as smoothly as possible. What can you do?

Below are five key tips that can help.

1. Respond promptly.

When that first notice comes in the mail, don't ignore it. If they email you, don't delete it. Some people don't want to deal with it and figure they'll wait for an agent to show up at the door. You're far better off to respond quickly and show that you're willing and eager to get it all sorted out.

2. Don't assume the IRS is perfect.

The IRS makes errors, just like you did. If they tell you that you owe far more than you think is possible -- or if you think you don't owe anything -- don't assume they're right. Don't be combative, but take the time to really get to the bottom of it.

3. Remember the process.

Concerned that the IRS is going to pull all of the money that you have right out of your bank account? Worried that they're going to garnish your wages so that you're shocked by your next paycheck? The IRS does have the power to claim back taxes through a number of tactics, but they have to inform you, in writing, before they do it.

4. Don't worry about jail time.

The first thing people fear when the IRS calls is that they're going to jail. Here's the good news: Owing money to the IRS isn't an issue that's punishable by jail time. Yes, it's serious. Yes, you can be jailed for intentional fraud and related issues. But not paying alone won't put you behind bars. Don't worry.

5. Know your options.

Can you pay the money all at once? If this really was just an oversight, you may have the money on hand. Do you want to use an installment plan to pay it over time? The IRS does, in many cases, accept monthly payments. They'd far rather you pay every month, even if it takes some time, than fail to pay entirely. The IRS may also accept a proposal that allows you to pay a lump sum that is less than you actually owe, forgiving the rest.

Above all, just remember that you have options. You have rights. Be sure you know what they are. Dealing with the government can be intimidating, but the more you know about the legal process and how you should proceed, the better you're going to feel about that upcoming meeting with the IRS.

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