TIGTA Reviews IRS Asset Seizure Procedures

Asset seizure is that one thing many of my clients worry about, but few have had to experience first hand, thankfully. In my work as a tax attorney, I have noticed that the IRS does not like to use asset seizure as their “go to” collection tool. They will typically try everything else first, including letters, phone calls, field visits, liens, wage garnishments, and bank levies. However, after other efforts have been exhausted, if they are still unable to get the taxpayer to address their tax balance, the IRS has authority to seize any variety of assets, including vehicles, real property, and valuable personal property. These days property seizures are orchestrated by specially trained “PALS” employees (Property Appraisal and Liquidation Specialists) who coordinate with the revenue officer throughout each phase of the seizure and sale.

According to a recent report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), the IRS needs to work out a few kinks in their asset seizure procedures. One of the problems that TIGTA identified occurs when a taxpayers’ personal property subsequently turns up inside or attached to the seized property. The IRS is supposed to use form 668-E to document these found items and they are to be released back to the taxpayer.  But the form is not consistently used and the items are not consistently returned, according to TIGTA. Although, to be fair, the IRS audited 44 seizure cases around the country and the only item that TIGTA identified as being unreturned to the taxpayer was the license plate in six of the eight vehicle seizures (because in those six states the license is issued to the owner of the vehicle, not the vehicle itself). Kind of a non-issue if you ask me. Yes, its important to follow procedures, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting their license plate back to forever remind them of the car that the IRS took from them.

Another procedural problem is that there is no IRM guidance for how to handle removal of taxpayer data from installed equipment in vehicles. Two examples of this would be factory installed garage door openers and GPS units. If taxpayer is not permitted to retrieve the personal data or ensure that the device has been scrubbed, this poses potential privacy concerns where a third party purchaser would have access to the taxpayer’s home address and maybe even access to the garage.

Very few taxpayers would ever even consider these seemingly minor concerns, until you find yourself at the mercy of PALS and an overzealous revenue officer. Still, I think it is useful to ponder some of the minute details of what goes on inside the IRS, even if only to give us some perspective and understanding. I like to imagine my revenue officer tied up in a complex asset seizure when I don’t get a call back for a couple weeks. It makes me feel like they’re not just ignoring me, and it makes me feel better knowing that my client’s situation could be much worse.

Will IRS Lighten up on Structuring?

By law, you must report to the IRS bank transactions of $10,000 or more.  It is one government tool for curbing white collar crimes.  Manipulating deposits so that they come just under the reporting requirement is called “structuring,” and it is illegal.  The IRS can seize bank accounts without notice to the account holder when structuring is suspected, and they have done so freely in the past, even if the money is obtained legally.

It is obvious to Commissioner Koskinen that this policy is way too harsh.  Today the commissioner apologized to taxpayers who have not been treated fairly “under the code.”  I don’t know how to take this apology.  It seems a little half-hearted to me.  It’s like saying, “we are sorry for seizing the accounts of law-abiding citizens, but we were only doing what we are permitted to do under the code.”  And it’s not necessarily a win for taxpayers until some changes are made to the code.  Semantics aside, it looks like a step in the right direction.

Will the IRS Take Your Home?

The likelihood of the IRS resorting to collection of taxes through asset seizure — probably the most severe tax collection method — can only accurately be determined on a case-by-case basis*.  Certainly the IRS has authority to seize and sell assets in order to satisfy a tax debt, but it has to make sense for the Service to do so.  They want to be sure that the target asset (or assets) will raise enough money to cover all or most of what is owed.  They want to be sure that the profits from the seizure and sale will at least match the effort and preparation going into the procedure.

Furthermore, the IRS has internal guidelines dictating when and how they may proceed with asset seizures.  In other words, the IRS doesn’t normally go after granny’s little two bedroom farm house, but there are exceptions.  The IRS doesn’t like to boot people out of their primary residence; it’s not good public policy and not a great PR move.  And the IRS doesn’t normally resort to seizure at all if they can collect what is owed through other means.  Much more common is the wage garnishment, bank levy, and federal tax lien.  Of course the preferred method of tax collection is through voluntary payment, but not everybody pays their taxes so willingly.

But don’t be mistaken, the IRS can and will seize assets, primarily real property, vehicles, and valuable estate assets.  Local news outlets often advertise public auction dates.  The IRS also posts details about asset sales on their dedicated IRS auction website.  If you do attend an IRS auction, you should know that they don’t accept personal checks, and they don’t take American Express.

*You might argue that the most severe IRS collection tool is criminal prosecution and prison sentences; however, I don’t know if I would consider this a collection method, except to the extent that it encourages others to file and pay on time.

IRS Collecting Less Revenue "By Force" . . . For Now

According to the latest TIGTA report, enforcement revenue is down at the IRS.  Enforcement revenue is the money collected through enforced collection activities rather than through voluntary compliance.  Enforcement revenue is down because the IRS has decreased the overall number of enforced collection actions (i.e., lien, wage garnishment, bank levy, property seizure).  The number of enforced collection actions is down because the number of IRS enforcement personnel is down.  And the number of enforcement personnel is down because the funding that the IRS used to receive for these positions is down as well.  According to TIGTA:

The 13 percent reduction in enforcement revenue correlates to the 14 percent reduction in the number of enforcement personnel … since Fiscal Year 2010, approximately 8,000 full-time IRS positions have been lost—about 5,000 from front-line enforcement personnel.

But who are considered enforcement personnel?  Auditors?  Revenue Officers?  Call center personnel?  All of the above?  One news source suggests that these 5,000 lost “enforcement” positions are auditor positions, but I would take it to mean something broader than that.  The TIGTA report does not specify.  I think it matters, because 5,000 lost auditor or revenue officer positions is rather significant, and could realistically be responsible for the 13 percent drop in enforcement income.  However, 5,000 fewer Automated Collection Department phone operators would result in extended hold times, but probably not a drastic drop in enforcement revenue.

Maybe 13 percent is not enough to make an appreciable difference from the perspective of a tax practitioner.  The IRS is supposedly issuing fewer liens and levies, but I sure haven’t seen this to be the case.  And it is certainly not something we can count on continuing for too long.

Blocking IRS Collections

If you do not develop a plan for dealing with your tax debt, the IRS will find a way to collect what you owe one way or another.  One way the IRS does it is through enforced collection actions such as wage garnishment, interception of federal and state refunds, levy on federal benefits like Social Security, bank levy, and seizure of property.  The IRS also encourages and persuades folks to voluntarily comply with tax laws through public outreach campaigns, phone calls, and letters.  Of course, those “nice guy” techniques only get them so far.  There are several different ways to block IRS collection efforts, but some I cannot recommend because they are illegal.


  • pay what you owe
  • set up an installment agreement
  • prove hardship
  • file an Offer in Compromise

Not Recommended

  • hide assets
  • bribe an IRS revenue officer
  • give false information
  • dump a pile of dirt in front of an IRS revenue officer to prevent them from getting near your assets

Let me be perfectly clear.  I include the “not recommended” list only to give you a keen understanding of what you should not do.  And the dirt dumping sounds like a ridiculous example, but it really happened.  The guy that did it was sentenced to three years of probation just last week.  In an attempt to collect unpaid taxes from 45-year-old Walter M. Trizila, IRS revenue officers visited his property to see if there were any assets worth seizing.  The IRS set its sights on a certain dump truck, but Trizila didn’t want to part with it.  He entered a front-end loader, charged at the revenue officers, and then dumped a mound of dirt between them and his truck.

Trizila is apparently a very literal kind of guy.  He knew he had to “block” IRS collections and he did it the only way he knew how.  Unfortunately for him, it resulted in a misdemeanor conviction for assault, resisting or impeding a federal officer.

Fixing the IRS: Where do we Start?

It’s no secret that the IRS makes mistakes, sometimes serious mistakes.  It may have been secret before (at least for the average taxpaying citizen) regardless of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) reports that highlight the agency’s deficiencies.  But in recent months the IRS has been under intense media scrutiny, bringing these reports out into the open in mainstream media outlets.

The problems at the IRS are the result of:

  • ineffective training
  • weak leadership
  • poor judgment
  • inexperienced employees
  • an overly-complex tax code
  • simple human error
  • insufficient funding

This is by no means a comprehensive list.  And it’s easy to lump them all together and imagine one comprehensive solution.  There are some who think all the problems can be fixed by increasing funding to the IRS.  They see this as the root of all employee development, training, and managerial issues.  This is perhaps the primary argument of IRS sympathizers; however, I’m not so sure there is an all-in-one solution for cleaning up at the IRS.

To use a recent example, why don’t IRS Revenue Officers (RO) always follow legal guidelines when seizing taxpayer property to cover unpaid taxes?  This is probably the most serious collection action that the IRS can take.  And besides going to prison, this is what taxpayers fear more than anything.  So, why do they get it wrong sometimes?  We can probably rule out “complex tax code” because the procedures for seizure of property are clearly laid out in the Internal Revenue Manual (IRM) so an RO has only to follow the steps.  But any of the other listed reasons could realistically apply.

Although I think it is impossible to narrow it down to one root problem, it is clear that there is quite a bit of overlap.  For example, an inexperienced employee is more likely to make simple human errors and use poor judgment in his work.  And lack of/ineffective training is a symptom of poor leadership.  This overlap is a good thing when contemplating solutions because it means that addressing one issue will automatically improve another.  It also means that once we get started on the task of fixing the IRS, we’ll already be closer to our goal than we think.

May be Too Late to Score Some Young Buck Swag

image via realtalkny.uproxx.com

If you are following the news stories concerning the financial woes of Rapper Young Buck, you probably know that his IRS situation has escalated to the point that his property is being sold at auction . . . right now.  The auction was to begin today at 10:00am in Nashville.

When a tax debt is not immediately paid, the IRS moves pretty quickly through its arsenal of ordinary collection tools like the wage garnishment and bank levy.  But when it comes to seizure and sale of personal property, the IRS wants to be absolutely sure it has tried every other less-intrusive alternative.  So in the case of Young Buck, and any other property seizure case, we can be fairly certain that the IRS has already tried, perhaps over the course of months or years, to collect what is owed “the nice way.”

The IRS provided a list of everything being sold at today’s auction and even pictures of most of the stuff.  It might be fun to take a look because I can assure you that all your stereotypes and assumptions about what might be sold at an IRS / rap star auction will be . . . well . . . confirmed.

Can the IRS Seize your Property Without Notice?

If you fail to comply with the individual mandate under Obama’s new health care law — if you can’t afford to purchase insurance or you don’t get around to it — you may be responsible for paying a special “tax” that will be enforced by the Internal Revenue Service.  And as I mentioned previously, the only real enforcement tool available to the IRS will be to capture any refund(s) that may be due to you to offset your tax debt.

Of course, if it’s actual taxes that you owe, you probably won’t be so lucky.  The IRS can be quick to issue a levy and seize your property (wages, bank account, and other assets) and there are really only a couple prerequisites.  Number one, the IRS must send you a bill.  And number two, you fail to pay the bill.

However, it is important to know that the IRS notice showing the amount of tax owed doesn’t have to actually be received.  As long as the IRS sends it to the last known address of record, then they are in full compliance with the law.  Also, there are some scenarios in which the IRS is not even required to give notice (listed in IRS Pub 594):

  1. collection of the tax is in jeopardy (i.e., the CSED is almost up)
  2. state tax refund levy
  3. levy served to collect the tax debt from a federal contractor
  4. seizure of unpaid employment taxes

My experience is that most people who owe the IRS know they owe, or at least know there is some kind of problem.  But it is always disturbing when the IRS comes knocking without sending a nastygram to tip the taxpayer off.

Chris Tucker Sheds Assets to Pay Back IRS

Chris Tucker, the actor best known for his work in the Rush Hour series of films, has been selling his properties in Florida to pay back what he owes to the IRS.

Mr. Tucker owes $11.5 million in back taxes (perhaps somewhat less now that he has sold off some assets). Reports indicate that he sold his Florida properties for much less than fair market value, which indicates to me that he was in a big hurry to raise some cash under pressure from the IRS.

We don’t have the complete details, but with a $11.5 million tax bill, certainly the IRS has already threatened to seize his property. Why else would he take less than it’s worth? The dilemma for Mr. Tucker is if he had not sold the property, the IRS would have seize it and auctioned it off to the top bidder. A taxpayer can normally get a much better price in a private sale than what can be fetched in a public IRS auction. But the IRS doesn’t allow the taxpayer to put a property on the market and wait until he gets his asking price. Pressure from the IRS usually forces the seller to accept less — in this case, less than fair market value.


The IRS “Pendulum”

If we were to step back and take a look at the history of IRS collection efforts (wage garnishment, bank levy, seizure of assets, etc.), we would see that it has not been consistent in its use of all available collection tools.

Longtime observers of our federal tax system note sagely that there are recurrent pendulum swings.  For some years, the IRS will be encouraged to collect, collect, collect, and inevitably be admired for its toughness perhaps earning an accolade: ruthless.  Then, after a few too many citizens have rugs pulled from under them, Congress and the Executive Branch will rebuke the IRS.  Telling the IRS how mean and inappropriate it is, Congress will cut back on the agency’s authority and make it play nice.

~ Robert W. Wood, Forbes Contributor

Wood goes on to explain that the pendulum swung to the far “NICE” side in the late 1970s. Then it swung back to the “RUTHLESS” side by the 1990s. Then back to “NICE” in the late 1990s. So is there any question where we stand today?

 [T]he pendulum has again swung the other way.  The economy is hurting, revenues are declining and wells are drying up.  Facing budget cuts and revenue shortfalls everywhere, the IRS is on a mission to collect, collect, collect.

~ Robert W. Wood, Forbes Contributor

Wood sees the IRS getting tougher on criminal investigations and even regular collection cases. For example, primary residences and retirement accounts have always been “fair game” technically, but in reality the IRS usually doesn’t have the heart to take them. Not now, according to Wood. See full story here.