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 certified mail 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 certified mail notice 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.

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