Deciphering the IRS CP504 Notice

The CP504 notice is one of the most misunderstood IRS notices. To the average inexperienced taxpayer, the heading can be completely terrifying: “Notice of intent to seize (levy) your property or rights to property.” The next line, appearing in a larger, bold font states “Amount due immediately: $XX,XXX.” Just for good measure, the word “immediately” appears three more times on the first page of the notice. If that weren’t enough, the CP504 often arrives via certified mail, so it cannot be easily ignored.

If you have a healthy heart and you get past the first page without experiencing any serious cardiac symptoms, you’ll notice there are a total of 5 pages of light reading (precise length will vary and will likely increase over time as the IRS discovers creative new ways to torment us). To summarize, you’ll find multiple options for paying in full, including a nifty payment voucher to make paying the IRS as convenient as possible. You’ll see information about how to appeal the actions specified in this letter, as well as information about penalties charged, interest rates, and what will happen if you don’t respond to the notice. The newest addition to the IRS CP504 notice is a paragraph describing the passport revocation provisions of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. This is the legislation that calls for revocation (or denial) of passports where a taxpayer is considered “seriously delinquent” (meaning they owe more than $52k and have not made arrangements with the IRS to pay).

So, what makes this notice so difficult to understand? Let’s go back to the first page. For most red-blooded humans, after they sign for the letter and get it open, there is an immediate emotional reaction to the first couple lines (“Notice of intent to levy” and “Amount due immediately”) that somehow prevents them from reading beyond those horrifying words to see what it all really means. Is this a catch-all “intent to levy” notice? Is the IRS moments away from emptying your bank account or issuing a wage garnishment? Maybe not, actually. The CP504 notice informs you of the government’s intent to levy a very specific asset type: your state tax refund. This is actually explained fully on page three: “In most other situations, before we levy on your property or rights to property [defined as income, bank accounts, personal assets], we’ll send you a notice that gives you the opportunity to request a Collection Due Process hearing, unless you have already received one.”

Now this is where the attorney in me wants to chose my words carefully and my lawyer instincts go on red alert. Please do not misinterpret what I have said in this article. I am not saying that the CP504 notice is “no big deal.” I am not saying it is not urgent. I am definitely not saying you can ignore it. What I am saying, though, is that in most cases you’ll get another warning (another letter) before the IRS engages in active collections. As you can see, the IRS does not want you to feel too comfortable, so they avoid using completely definitive phrasing in this letter. The fact is there are always exceptions, and sometimes they make mistakes, and sometimes you’ll get a CP504 when you’ve already previously received the more urgent levy warning letter that includes an explanation of your due process rights.

So, while the CP504 is probably not the last notice you’ll receive from the IRS, it’s also not the first. When someone calls because they received a CP504, that tells me there is a little bit of history; it tells me that prior notices have been sent and the tax issues have not been resolved. The silver lining is that I also know we still have time to jump in and fix things. But the window is small, and it closes quickly. If your tax issues are not resolved at this critical stage, your account will undoubtedly end up in the IRS Collections Department, which will present a whole different set of challenges.

Contact us today with any further questions!

How to Read an IRS Letter Notice

I Received A Letter From The IRS – Now What?

This article presupposes that you will actually open your IRS correspondence instead of tossing it out or leaving it on your desk unopened. Yes, an IRS notice can be frightening, but you do yourself no favors by pretending that you didn’t receive it, so OPEN IT… that’s step one.

Next, you’ll want to pay attention to the information in the top right corner. There you’ll find important details such as the notice number/code, the tax year(s) involved, the notice date, your social security number or tax ID number, and IRS contact info. I like to keep IRS notices in chronological order. Your IRS tax account is continually evolving (hopefully your balance is shrinking instead of growing) so notices that are over a year old are of little value. The “tax year” is an important piece of information, especially if you owe for more than one year or tax period. Some people will automatically glance at the amount due in the letter (which is normally in the boldest and biggest font on the page) and assume that’s their total balance, but many, if not most, tax notices address individual years. So, if you’re not careful in the way you read an IRS notice, you could think you owe far less than what you actually owe. If you want the IRS to teach you about your notice, you can search by notice number on the IRS website.

Also, you should take note of the IRS address in the top left corner of the letter or notice. Your notice could come from any number of far-away locations:

  1. Holtsville, NY
  2. Ogden, UT
  3. Kansas City, MO
  4. Cincinnati, OH

Sometimes they come from close by, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, many of our California clients receive notices from Fresno, CA. The IRS Office in Fresno is one of the main hubs for the IRS, so that city could be included in the list above. Having said that, if you receive an IRS letter from really close by, it could mean that your account has been assigned to a local field agent, aka “revenue officer.” If you receive mail from an IRS revenue officer, then that means your account has been singled out as needing special attention, possibly due to multiple missing returns, a very high balance, delinquent business/payroll taxes, or all of these things.

Most of the time the IRS reveals the main purpose of the notice in the first line. For example, I am currently looking at a CP49 notice from Fresno, CA, and the first line states “We applied your 2018 Form 1040 overpayment to an unpaid balance… Amount due immediately: $7,946.93.” It goes on to show exactly how much was applied and where it was applied, and the $7,947 is what is left to pay for one specific year.

If there’s anything in this particular letter that throws people off, it’s the line “Amount due immediately: $7,946.93.” As stated earlier, the eye is drawn to this line since it is the biggest and boldest font on the page. If you don’t continue to read, you might assume that all previous deals are off and the IRS is demanding full payment “immediately.” There’s even a payment coupon directly below on the first page. However, an overpayment will obviously not default an installment agreement that’s already in effect, and the letter confirms this, but you wouldn’t know it if you only read the first couple lines.

I always recommend a careful reading of the entire IRS letter, but this is a good way to get started.

IRS Not Fully Up to Speed Following Shutdown

Even though the government shutdown has ended and IRS employees have returned to work, it could be a while before we can say that things are “back to normal.” We are seeing continued delays in both Exams and Collections cases as IRS personnel catch up on their backlog. If you’ve ever returned to work after an unusually long break, you understand how the first several days back are spent putting out fires and giving attention to the most urgent tasks first. If you had been working with a revenue officer prior to the shutdown, and you have not heard from him/her yet, then it is probably because they have put a higher priority on some other cases besides your own. Don’t be offended; we really have no way of knowing what is happening with assignments and caseload on their end. Instead, it would be wise to take inventory and re-evaluate where you are on your end of things.

Every revenue officer I have worked with has given the taxpayer a specific set of tasks or requests, usually having to do with filing missing tax returns and/or providing financial information. This lull in activity from revenue officers is the perfect time to get everything in order. Maybe your due date has long passed and you haven’t heard from your revenue officer in a couple of months. Now is the best time to prepare your case because you can do so without the pressure applied by an overbearing revenue officer. Once the fires have been put out and they pick up your file, you can bet there will be short deadlines and the ever-present threat of levies and other active collection measures. Ideally, the IRS will attempt to reestablish contact with taxpayers first, and possibly set new deadlines. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that there will be some revenue officers who will not do the right thing; they will come back at you with all guns blazing, and their first post-shutdown contact with you will be a levy notice.

It is human nature to procrastinate when faced with a task that we don’t enjoy. And it is human nature to defensively wait for the IRS to come back into contact and put our tax matters aside while things are quiet. But for all we know, this is the calm before the storm. Now is the time to file missing returns, change your withholdings, make an estimated tax payment, gather bank statements, or whatever it is you know you have to do. If you owe back taxes and haven’t heard from the IRS in a couple of months, try to fight off the notion that maybe it will just go away; this kind of thing does not magically go away.

Contact us today with any and all questions you may have. MW Attorneys is happy to offer advice and guidance when it comes to dealing with the IRS.

2018-2019 US Government Shutdown

US Government Shutdown & the IRS – 2018 into 2019

We are now in week three of the government shutdown.

During a federal government shutdown, many agencies close their doors and workers are furloughed, meaning that they are off work and without pay. Government employees who perform “essential services” (military, law enforcement, etc.) continue to work, but without pay until the budget is passed. The last major government shutdown occurred in 2013 during the Obama administration when lawmakers could not agree on the terms of the Affordable Care Act. That one lasted 16 days and impacted the personal finances of thousands of government employees, not to mention the effect it had on the US economy.

Not surprisingly, the IRS does not fit into any category of emergency/essential services that would keep it open. There are pros and cons to the IRS closure, depending on your individual situation. If you owe back taxes and you’re working with a revenue officer, maybe you would like more time to arrange your affairs and this little break may be just what you need right after a busy holiday season. However, if you need to get into contact with the IRS for whatever reason, then this has certainly been a frustrating couple of weeks.

Don’t even bother calling the IRS right now. If you try one of the IRS 800 numbers, you’ll get a very generic message saying “all circuits are busy, please try your call again later.” If you call a local office (I called Fresno, CA for example) you’ll get a slightly more informative greeting: “live telephone assistance is not available at this time.”  And if you have a revenue officer’s direct line, you may get something like “I will be out of the office for the duration of the government shutdown,” and then a referral to the US Treasury website for more details on the shutdown. I suspect that the IRS may have their fax services turned off as well because a couple numbers that I use frequently are not currently working. The IRS does not typically use outside email to communicate with taxpayers or their representatives. The IRS website appears to be working normally; in other words, they’re still accepting payments.

I anticipate that the government shutdown is going to have some lasting effects on IRS operations and workflow. Once IRS employees go back to work, they will be faced with weeks of backlog that has been piling up. I think we can expect things to just move more slowly for a month or two while they catch up after their return.

If you have any further questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to get into contact with us.

New IRS Commissioner, Charles Rettig

Earlier this month the Senate confirmed Charles P. Rettig as the 49th Commissioner of the IRS. Rettig was managing principal of the Beverly Hills law firm, Hochman, Salkin, Rettig, Toscher & Perez, a firm specializing in high profile tax controversy cases. The biggest challenges he’ll face as commissioner are the same ones that have existed for years, namely improving the effectiveness of an agency that doesn’t get the funding it really wants or needs, improving public perception & confidence, and now implementing a whole host of new tax laws. Rettig has spent basically his entire career with the same law firm and his peers definitely think highly of him.

With each new commissioner, the question that always comes to mind for me is, will he be sympathetic to the common taxpayer? I am definitely encouraged by the fact that he has real hands-on experience representing taxpayers seeking tax relief and going up against the agency that he now runs. Also, he’s a California attorney, so he is intimately familiar with the unique struggles of local people like our own clients. I’m sure many of his clients are from the Los Angeles area, but there’s no reason to think he has not also assisted taxpayers in Northern California towns like Sacramento, Modesto, or Fresno. The commissioner is usually someone with vast amounts of experience in administration, but limited knowledge of taxes. However, Rettig is well versed in all aspects of tax controversy, including (according to the practice areas listed on his firm’s website) audits, appeals, offshore accounts, penalty abatement – surely almost anything related to IRS collections. We don’t know if Rettig will be that champion of taxpayer rights that we always hope for; he actually seems middle-of-the-road politically. But he at least knows the point of view of the taxpayer and knows from experience what it means to go face-to-face with the IRS. In my book, that’s a fantastic start.

Any comments or questions? Please, contact us today. We’d love to hear from you!

IRS Credit Report: Certain Tax Liens Removed

Wondering how to remove tax liens from your credit report? Tax experts generally agree that the tax lien is one of the least useful of IRS collection tools for the amount of damage it can cause. It used to be that the IRS filed liens in just about every case where a taxpayer allowed his tax account to go unpaid. Over the years the IRS has pulled back somewhat on tax liens to soften their bite. Through the Fresh Start program the IRS has increased the minimum dollar amount that it uses as a marker for when liens are to be filed. This avoids those situations where a taxpayer owes a couple thousand dollars that he pays off quickly and then has to wait months before his credit score bounces back. The IRS also provides a means whereby a taxpayer can get liens released under specified conditions (or avoided in the first place) by entering into a direct debit installment agreement.
Now we are getting good news about tax liens from the credit reporting agencies who also play an important role, although from their perspective it is less about helping struggling taxpayers and more about ensuring that the information reported to them is accurate. What does this have to do with removing IRS tax liens from your credit report? Beginning July 1, 2017, the three credit reporting agencies will begin to exclude tax liens from credit reports unless they have certain minimum information. Furthermore, they have agreed to actually remove tax liens that don’t meet the criteria. The minimum information required is: (1) name, (2) address, and (3) social security number or date of birth. Just how big of a deal this is remains to be seen.
When I first saw this story, I immediately thought (based on the headlines alone) that this was going to be a major change for taxpayers with credit scores improving nationwide for everyone plagued by tax debts. I actually first heard about this on NPR, but I only caught part of the story. So I went to my computer thinking I would find all the major news outlets reporting on this huge story. But they didn’t…and I think I know why. I think the credit reporting agencies have agreed to the IRS tax lien removal from the credit report and exclude amounts to very little. As for the IRS, there has been a push to exclude complete social security numbers on routine notices, but they still put that minimum identifying information on almost everything. Certainly they wouldn’t leave those things off a Notice of Federal Tax Lien! According to the original source of this announcement, the Consumer Data Industry Association, about half of all tax liens may not meet the new criteria, but I wonder if those are mostly state tax liens.
The biggest complaints about credit reports is that they contain incorrect information and that certain credit “smudges” are too difficult to clear up. This change addresses those concerns, but I don’t think it represents a big win for Americans with delinquent federal tax accounts.

Business Email Spoofing

Google defines “spoof” as a “humorous imitation of something,” or a “trick played on someone as a joke.” But there is nothing funny about the type of spoofing I am about to describe. The tax industry is gathering forces to warn the public about a dangerous tax scheme that involves something called “business email spoofing.” I feel compelled to do my part in spreading the word about this one. As part of this scheme, cybercriminals send an email that appears to come from a high-level executive at the target company to somebody in HR or payroll, asking them for sensitive employee information (most often social security numbers or documents containing social security numbers). This particular scam first appeared last year and we are now seeing a second wave. Enough victims have reported these emails so that the IRS now has examples of the exact phrasing used in some of these spoof emails. It is worth your time to review these phrases, and certainly double check any similar requests coming from the head of your company.

Only a few days after their warning to the business world last month, the IRS released a follow-up alert stating that the spoofing scheme had spread to “other sectors, including school districts, tribal organizations and nonprofits.” The second wave appearing this tax season appears to be more dangerous and more pervasive than what was witnessed last year. First of all, the emails started surfacing earlier in the season this time around. The scheme has spread to new sectors of society; pretty much any organization that collects social security numbers is at risk. And the emails have gotten more bold this time around. Originally the criminals would ask for social security numbers under the guise of high-level management, which would potentially provide a means for illegally obtaining tax refunds (an indirect way of getting paid). Now they are boldly taking a more direct route to the cash by simply asking for a wire transfer. I am sure that most of the time these emails are recognized as spam/phishing, but with just the right wording and in just the right set of circumstances, the cybercriminals are successful.

We have seen variations of this scheme before. Tax scammers posing as representatives of the IRS typically called or emailed individuals asking for financial and identifying information as well as direct payments. But why contact taxpayers one by one when you can hit the jackpot exploiting the vulnerabilities of entire businesses and organizations? That has to be their rationale. I imagine crime rings where the more effective individual scammers are “promoted” to a position where they handle the corporate accounts where both the risks and the potential profits are much greater, but I really have no idea about the structure or sophistication of these criminal organizations. For all I know it could be one or two thugs sitting in their mom’s garage somewhere halfway around the world. It is very frustrating that this kind of thing can go on, but I’ll leave that to the FBI and Criminal Investigation. What goes on in the mind of the victim is also interesting, but I don’t know enough about human behavior to understand why people keep falling for this. We are increasingly comfortable making financial transactions online. Does that familiarity cause us to let our guard down? If it is mostly a matter of people being uninformed, I hope this article helps to spread the word.

IRS Holiday Fraud Warnings

For years now, the IRS has taken an active role in warning taxpayers, and the tax industry in general, of tax-related scams, but they seem to be as prevalent as ever. Once a year, right around tax season, the IRS increases the number and intensity of its warnings to try to match the number and intensity of scams. Criminals have found that tax season (January thru April) is the best time to practice their craft. But we have seen the Christmas season begin earlier and earlier each year in the world of retail sales — before Thanksgiving in most places, and the tax fraud people seem to be following suit. They don’t wait for tax season anymore, which often puts the beginning of “tax fraud season” smack dab in the middle of the holidays. Their schemes are almost always based on some type of IRS impersonation, sometimes targeting particular groups in an attempt to exploit their vulnerabilities. The IRS recently provided a list of several variations, including the following:

  1. Direct calls requesting immediate payment: This is perhaps the boldest and most common technique. Taxpayer will receive an automated message or a threatening cold call demanding payment over the phone. Often the caller will threaten prosecution or jail time based on some false claim of tax evasion.
  2. The Federal Student Tax scam: This scam is carried out in manner similar to the direct call, but targeted at students and parents of students. As you might know, there is no such thing as a federal student tax.
  3. Fake tax bill for Affordable Care Act liability: It is true that a taxpayer could owe penalties (aka, “shared responsibility payments”) and advanced premium tax credit overpayments under the Affordable Care Act. It is also true that the IRS is charged with the responsibility of collecting such payments. However, you must be careful that the letter or email is legitimate. An email claiming to be from the IRS is most likely a fake. And the IRS says that taxpayers should be skeptical of “CP2000” letters requesting that payment be send to the “Austin Processing Center.”
  4. Emails from the boss: Sometimes tax scammers have been known to contact human resources and others within a company asking for confidential employee records, including social security numbers.
  5. Gaining access through the tax preparation industry: Tax preparers should be aware of a scheme whereby the criminals contact them with fake software updates via an email that appears to be from a tax software firm. Somebody in the tax industry might be savvy enough to recognize this kind of thing as a fake, but since many taxpayers use tax filing software themselves, sometimes these emails go straight to the consumer who could more easily fall victim to this scheme.

It may be that the holidays are the perfect time for a variety of criminal schemes. I was recently made aware of a scheme targeting attorneys. An email with the subject line “The Office of The State Attorney Complaint,” if opened, could expose an unwary lawyer to a computer virus.  If this sounds like an agency with a clumsy name, it’s because no such agency exists. Stay vigilant my friends; apparently there are a lot of Scrooges out there this time of year.

IRS: Some Refunds Will be Delayed in 2017

It’s hard to make tax news interesting because it’s always the same story over and over again. People are getting scammed by criminals who impersonate the IRS, politicians want to replace the IRS Commissioner, the IRS hasn’t been funded properly and doesn’t have the resources to do their job, the IRS filed a federal tax lien against a celebrity who owes millions of dollars in back taxes, and the IRS warns taxpayers to brace themselves for a rocky tax season. Even the “scholarly” articles are completely predictable: How do we close the Tax Gap?, Who’s going to overhaul and simplify the tax code?, What can be done to make the IRS run more efficiently?, How do we promote voluntary compliance?  The details change a bit, but it’s basically an endless cycle of the same old unsolved problems.

Today the IRS announced that refunds will be delayed for certain early filers during the 2017 tax season. New laws require the IRS to hold entire refunds where the filer claims the EITC or the ACTC until at least February 15th. Taxpayers who expect a refund naturally tend to file in January or as early as they can, and many are accustomed to getting their refund somewhere near the end of January or early in February. Believe me, it is common for people to plan vacations and major purchases around their tax refund. Having to wait a week or two longer may not seem like a big deal, but some people have come to really rely on that check, and a couple weeks can feel like a couple months.

At least this time the reason for the delay is more valid than “we don’t have the resources to process the refunds quickly.” The IRS is reviewing certain returns with heightened scrutiny in an effort to identify and prevent refund fraud and identity theft.

The IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen, said, in explaining the need for today’s announcement, “We don’t want anyone caught by surprise if they get their refund a few weeks later than in previous years.” My question is, what, besides this press release, will the IRS do to get the word out? They’ll tweet it out a couple times, I have no doubt about that. But this kind of info needs to spread to all the news outlets, social media, tax preparers, and tax prep software so that even the least connected of America’s taxpayers will be aware.

FTB’s Dreaded Top 500 List

Twice a year the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) puts together a list that they call the “Top 500 Delinquent Taxpayers.” One list comes out in April during tax season, and it is updated in October near the extension deadline. It is a list of the 500 highest state tax liabilities along with the individuals and companies who owe them. The list was last updated on October 14th and can be accessed here. Right now these 500 liabilities add up to around $394 million.

I know I tend to get hung up on semantics (isn’t that what lawyers do?) but I think the title of this list is a bit harsh. The term “delinquent,” when used to describe an individual, almost always has a criminal connotation. The Oxford dictionary, for example, defines the term in this manner: “(typically of a young person) tending to commit crime, particularly minor crime.” Webster’s definition is similar: “doing things that are illegal or immoral.” I don’t know how many taxpayers on this list have been convicted (or even accused) of a crime; I would guess few of them have. As we know, failing to pay all your taxes when they become due, in and of itself, is not a crime.

In tax jargon the term “delinquent” usually means something different. Tax attorneys, accountants, and tax collection agencies typically use this word when referring to overdue payments or past due accounts. When “delinquent” is used to describe an account (rather than a person) then it carries a connotation of tardiness rather than criminality. Therefore, if the FTB must use the term “delinquent,” it really should be used to describe an account rather than a taxpayer. I would be in favor of changing the title of the list to “Top 500 Delinquent Tax Accounts.”

Having said that, these people have been given fair warning. Besides the various preliminary letters and notices, they are given one last chance to clear things up (or at least begin the process) before the top 500 list is published. According to the FTB website:

In August, FTB sent letters to taxpayers scheduled to appear on the list. Of these taxpayers, 96 made arrangements to pay their tax debt. Another 296 individuals and 108 businesses did not pay, resulting in their inclusion on the list.

The FTB states that they have collected more than $582 million through this program since it was started in 2007. I’m not sure how they can tell what part of the revenue they receive is a result of this program and what part would have been paid regardless of inclusion on the list. I would also be interested in studying the unintended consequences of the list, like how, and to what degree, this list has negatively impacted these peoples’ careers. Although, having done a quick Google search, I don’t think the list usually appears in mainstream news outlets. I also researched a few of the top names and I suspect that their reputations have already been tarnished by other financial problems, and their FTB tax debts are just one piece to the puzzle.