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Back Taxes and Tax Debt

How Much Do I Owe the IRS? How to Find Out if You Owe Back Taxes

Mark Steber

Chief Tax Information Officer

Published on: August 19, 2019

Back taxes are simply money that you owe to the Internal Revenue Service. When you don't pay your taxes or pay the wrong amount, you owe "back taxes." If you continue to miss payments, you have "tax debt" that the IRS will try to collect. And, whether you forgot to file, miscalculated your return, or just couldn't come up with the money, it's important to know that you are not alone. Actually, you're among more than 14 million American taxpayers who owe back taxes, according to the 2018 IRS Data Book. So, don't take it personally, but do take back taxes seriously.

How do I know if I owe the IRS back taxes, and how much?

There are four ways to know if you owe the IRS money.

  1. Online - check using online tool 
  2. By phone - call the IRS at 800-829-1040, Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time
  3. In-person - go to the nearest IRS office 
  4. By mail – if you’re getting letters from the IRS, then there’s a good chance you have tax debt

If you owe back taxes, ignoring letters doesn't make the IRS, or your tax debt go away. In fact, it can make things worse. Just like any other collections agency, expect letters and additional fees until the issue is resolved. As a government entity, the IRS can also garnish wages, put a lien on your property, and keep future refunds.

Don't expect to wait them out: The IRS rarely forgives debts and has 10 years to collect them before they are written off. This is known as a Collection Statute Expiration Date (CSED). Usually, once that date is passed, the IRS has no choice but to forgo your debt. But beware, there are exceptions: The CSED can be extended through various means, such as entering into an installment agreement, having property seized, or entering a period of non-collectability.

Nearing your CSED date? You may qualify for a partial reduction of your debt by either submitting partial payment installment agreement or an offer in compromise.

How to get back on track if you owe the IRS money

Five simple steps you can take now to get your tax debt under control:

  1. Read the letters or notices IRS sends carefully to better understand the issue. If you still don’t get why you’ve received a letter or notice, you can look it up here or contact a tax professional.

If you received a letter from the IRS, it is usually to notify you of a:

  • Balance due
  • Larger or smaller refund than expected
  • Question about your tax return
  • Delay in processing your return
  • Change made to your return

The IRS may also simply need additional information or to verify your identity or return information.

  1. Respond to the IRS in a timely manner to minimize fees, such as additional interest and penalty charges, and to preserve your appeal rights.
  2. Resolve your debt by making payments when agreed upon, even if you can’t pay the full amount owed.
  3. Retain copies of letters, notices and/or agreements; you may need these later.
  4. Reach out to the IRS or a tax professional if you are unsure what to do.

You can find the notice (CP) or letter (LTR) number on either the top or the bottom right-hand corner of your correspondence.

How long do you have to pay, if you owe back taxes?

This can vary from making at least a partial payment now to up to 72 months to pay off your taxes in installments. To better understand your options and the implications, there are ways to take action.


The IRS phone number can be found in the top right-hand corner of the notice or letter. Typically, you only need to contact the IRS if you don’t agree with the information, if they requested additional information, or if you have a balance due.

How can I pay back what I owe?

While you may owe the IRS, you also owe it to yourself to know your options for settling your tax debt. There are many ways to help reduce, and in some cases eliminate, tax arrears--from payment plans to compromises.


Filing missing returns and/or adding missed credits and deductions by amending the original return is one of the most overlooked ways to reduce or eliminate a tax debt.

About the Author

Mark Steber is Senior Vice President and Chief Tax Information Officer for Jackson Hewitt. With over 30 years of experience, he oversees tax service delivery, quality assurance and tax law adherence. Mark is Jackson Hewitt’s national spokesperson and liaison to the Internal Revenue Service and other government authorities. He is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), holds registrations in Alabama and Georgia, and is an expert on consumer income taxes including electronic tax and tax data protection.

More about Mark Steber Our Editorial Policy

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