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.

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