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Help! I can't pay my tax bill

You finish your tax return, and you get a very unpleasant surprise. Instead of looking forward to a refund, you owe $3,000 in taxes this year. Or maybe you got a notice from the IRS telling you that you owe $9,000 because you took some money out of your retirement account two years ago in what you thought would be a tax-free withdrawal. No matter how it happened, you owe the IRS, and you don’t have the money to pay them. What do you do?

The first step is to remain calm because there are solutions available. At the same time, don’t ignore the problem. The amount you owe will only get bigger if you put off dealing with it since you’ll start to rack up penalties and interest. If you don’t contact the IRS or pay at least some of your bill, the IRS may seek to take your assets and wages to pay the bill, as well. It’s possible to avoid these bad outcomes, though. Here are some possible solutions.

Pay what you can now

Since filing your return on time is critical, this can be an option if you’re short on cash now but expect to have more money later. If you pay at least some of your tax bill, it will reduce the penalties and interest you’ll be charged for a late payment.

If you send in less than you owe, you should receive a bill for the balance in about 45 days. If you still can’t pay, call or write the contact on the bill or visit the nearest IRS office to explain your situation. Depending on the situation, you may qualify for an agreement to make full payment within 60 or 120 days.

It’s important to be aware that you will be charged penalties and interest while the balance is outstanding. You’ll have more time, but the total you will pay could be much larger than if you had paid your taxes in full on time. Remember, too, that filing an extension won’t help in this situation. An extension gives you more time to file your tax return but doesn't allow more time to pay your tax.

Get a loan

Another choice is to borrow from a relative or close friend. If doing so allows you to pay in full on time, you will avoid interest and penalties. Be sure to draw up an agreement that sets out when payments will be made, how much each one will be and if you will pay any interest on the loan. One caveat: If you borrow more than $10,000 and pay no interest or below a reasonable market rate, there may be tax consequences.

Also, consider taking out an unsecured bank loan or using a home equity line of credit. You will have to pay interest on each loan, but it will probably be lower than the interest and penalties owed on the unpaid tax.

Use a credit card

With this option, be sure to use a card with a low-interest rate. That’s especially true if you believe you’ll need some time to pay off the balance, since the interest will add up quickly. Charging your tax payment on a high-interest-rate card could end up costing you more than the penalties and interest you would owe the IRS if you didn’t pay on time. To use a credit card, you’ll have to pay through a third-party service or a tax software program. In either case, you will be charged a fee that is a percentage of the payment. Contact the IRS to find out which credit cards are accepted.

Ask to pay in installments

If you can’t pay all at once, you may be able to get automatic approval for an installment agreement with the IRS (assuming you meet a few other requirements). Under this agreement, you make monthly payments of your bill until it’s paid off.

Request a first-time penalty abatement

The first-time penalty abatement weaver is an administrative waiver that the IRS may grant to relieve taxpayers from failure-to-file, failure-to-pay, and failure-to-deposit penalties if certain criteria are met. To qualify, you must have file all required return and can’t have an outstanding request for a return from the IRS. You must have paid or arranged to pay all tax due and had no prior penalties for the last three years. To request this or see if you’re eligible, call the number on your notice to get further details.