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. 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 what the credit reporting agencies have agreed to remove 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.