How to Get Rid of an IRS Tax Lien
This Guide will explain what a Federal Tax Lien is, when they’re put in place, how they impact your finances, and what you can do to prevent or get rid of one after it’s been created.
I’m going to go through each part of the process in detail, so listen up, pay attention, and hopefully this Guide will help you deal with your IRS problems before they turn into a complete disaster.
If you have any questions about how to approach your debt or handle a tax lien, please feel free to post them in the Comments section at the very bottom of this page and I’ll do my best to get you a response as quickly as I can.
What is a Federal Tax Lien?
After you’ve failed to pay your IRS debt on time, you begin racking up IRS Penalties, Fines, Fees and Interest on your unpaid tax debt, but technically, as long as you show good intentions to pay off the debt, you’re not in big trouble yet!
Once the IRS has decided that not only do you owe them money, but that you’ve also given up on trying to pay them back, then you start getting into serious trouble, and that’s when you’ll get hit with an IRS Federal Tax Lien.
Before this lien can be put in place, the IRS must file a public document called the Notice of Federal Tax Lien, which publicly alerts your creditors that the IRS is asserting a legal right to your property, meaning that you technically don’t own it anymore, and that when it comes time to sell that property, the IRS is going to take their cut of the profits before you’re given anything.
Liens can be put in place against your house, property you own, your cars, a boat, a plane, a business, stocks, bonds, bank accounts or any other asset that you own which has value, so basically anything worth money can have a lien put against it.
There have even been instances where the IRS put liens against art collections, collectibles, and all sorts of other non-traditional “investments” or “assets” that people wouldn’t ordinarily think they could pursue.
What’s the Difference Between an IRS Lien and an IRS Levy?
To understand what a lien is, how they work, and how best to fight them, let’s first explain what they’re not! To start, a lien is NOT a levy, even though people often use the terms interchangeably.
There’s one huge difference between a Federal Tax Lien and an IRS Levy; while a levy allows the IRS to literally seize your property (taking actual ownership of it directly), a lien is just a legal claim against the value of your property.
The way it works in operation is that if the IRS gets a levy against you, they can actually take your home, business, stocks, bonds, car, boat, or whatever property they had the levy approved for.
However, when the IRS gets a lien approved against your property, they don’t get to actually confiscate it, but they will get to alert creditors that they have a legal right to your property so that if you attempt to sell it, the IRS will automatically be given some percentage of the proceeds of the sale to satisfy your debt with them.
By the way, the IRS gets their cut of the profits before you get anything, so if you owe more than the asset is worth, you may end up getting $0 in return for selling it, since the IRS will seize all the proceeds.
Because an IRS lien is requires filing a public document against you and notifying your creditors to the lien, the credit reporting agencies are guaranteed to find out about it and your credit score is likely to tank too, whereas with a levy, nothing needs to be publicly filed so you can often escape without any harm being done to your credit.
What Can Liens Be Issued Against?
The IRS can place a lien against any assets that they’re able to discern you own, including any sort of property, like real estate, personal property or financial assets.
Typically, they’re placed against homes, ownership stakes in businesses, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, cars, trucks, boats or other assets that it’s easy for the IRS to find out you own.
However, the IRS doesn’t give up on pursuing back taxes via traditional investments or assets, and they can even place a lien against anything else they think you’ve got which is valuable, like jewelry, sports memorabilia, art, or anything else they feel will help reduce your tax debt.
While some people attempt to escape from IRS liens by making investments in all sorts of complicated assets, it’s extremely difficult to hide money from the IRS, and it’s better to simply confront your back tax problem head on, because almost nobody beats the IRS when it comes to getting away with not paying them back.
When Does the IRS Issue a Tax Lien?
As I mentioned above, Federal tax liens typically aren’t put in place until the IRS has given up attempting to collect debt from someone who owes back taxes via the conventional way.
Typically, when people owe back taxes, they try to make things up with the Federal Government through IRS Installment Agreements, some sort of Tax Debt Forgiveness Program, or a relief program like the IRS Offer in Compromise Program or the IRS Fresh Start Initiative.
However, if a taxpayer shows no signs of remorse, and no interest in paying the IRS back, then that’s when things like a tax lien, or a wage garnishment, get put into place.
This only happens once the IRS has decided that you are not going to pay them back unless they absolutely force you to do so.
What Must You Owe to Get Hit With a Tax Lien?
One nice thing about IRS tax liens is that they’re only used in the direst of circumstances, when the taxpayer owes a substantial amount of money.
In fact, it’s exceptionally rare that someone with an IRS debt lower than $10,000 will even be considered for a tax lien, as the IRS has much easier ways to forcefully collect those funds (like Wage Garnishments).
If your debt to the IRS is not substantial, then you have virtually no chance of having a tax lien put in place.
In addition, even if you owe the IRS a ton of money and they think you’ve given up attempting to pay it back, you may be able to avoid a tax lien simply by not owning any real assets that a lien can be put against.
Is There a Statute of Limitations on IRS Tax Liens?
The IRS only gets 10 years to collect tax liabilities, and this applies to every single part of their collections process.
Meaning, if you have a tax lien applied against an asset, that lien is only going to be valid for 10 years from the date the IRS notified you of your tax liabilities that you refused to pay.
And since tax liens are typically not put in place until after all negotiations have broken down, you may be one of the lucky taxpayers who ends up being able to simply outlast the IRS, and avoid paying back the debt you owe, even after a lien has been put in place against your property.
Personally, I would do everything I could to avoid getting hit with a tax lien in the first place, but for some of you clever folk who simply refuse to give up, you may even want to consider a strategy that delays the IRS for as long as possible, allows them to hit you with a tax lien, then attempts to avoid it ever being realized before the 10 year statute of collections expires.
It’s not an easy thing to do, but there are instances reported online where people have used a strategy like this to avoid paying back the IRS.
How to Remove an IRS Tax Lien
As I mentioned earlier, the best way to get rid of a Federal tax lien is to simply pay back whatever amount of money you owe the IRS, because that’s the only sure-fire way to get them agree to drop the lien.
By law, the IRS must release any liens they have against you within 30 days of having paid off your back taxes, so the nice thing about this process is that even though it’s a big and scary threat, once you’ve dealt with the underlying problem, the lien goes away pretty quickly.
However, there are other options for removing a lien, and though these are relatively difficult to get approved, you may want to aim for one of these because it could end up costing you significantly less money than paying off your debt.
The first thing to remember about any of these options is that the IRS will only agree to offer them to you if they feel that it’s in their best interest, meaning it will get them more money than continuing to fight you via liens.
Currently, there are three ways to get rid of an IRS lien:
- Discharge of Property
I’ll explain each of these three paths to getting rid of Federal tax liens in detail below.
1. Discharge of Property
The first way to get rid of a Federal tax lien is to “Discharge the Property”, meaning to sell it, and to give the IRS their cut of the sale.
Don’t think that because it’s called a “Discharge” that it’s akin to some kind of forgiveness program, because these certainly aren’t ways to eliminate your lien without paying the IRS what you owe them.
In fact, all the “Discharge” provisions listed below offer you is the opportunity to sell whatever asset the IRS has placed a lien against, give them their fair share of the proceeds, and then have the lien itself removed from your record.
The whole point of the “Property Discharges” is that typically, you aren’t allowed to sell anything the IRS has placed a lien against, because they don’t want you to be able to make off with profits that they can’t tap into.
However, if your property qualifies under one of the Property Discharge provisions below, then you’ll legally be allowed to sell it, you’ll pay the IRS what you owe them from the proceeds of the sale, and your tax lien will then be removed since it’s been fully satisfied.
For full details on the Discharge of Property options, check out the IRS’s “Certificate of Discharge From Federal Tax Lien” document, here.
IRS Provision 6325(b)(1)
This Provision allows you to sell the property and remove the lien if the value of your property encumbered by the tax lien if the property is worth at least twice as much as your tax liability and other debts associated with the property.
Again, this doesn’t let you wipe out the lien and get away without paying the IRS, but what it does do is allow you to sell the property the IRS has placed a lien against, give them the proceeds you owe them from the sale, then move on with your life.
As an example, it works like this:
If you owe the IRS $10,000, and your other debts (including mortgage debt, state and local taxes, mechanics liens, etc.) against the property are also $10,000, then the calculations would be:
- $10,000 IRS Lien + $10,000 Other Debts = $20,000
- $20,000 Total Debts X 2 = $40,000
- If the property is worth at least $40,000, then you can sell it
Per the math above, the asset the IRS placed the lien on would have to be worth at least $40,000 for you to be able to get an automatic approval to sell the property.
IRS Provision 6325(b)(2)(A)
In this case, you’re allowed to sell property the IRS has placed a lien against as long as they’re able to collect the full amount of the lien, even if it doesn’t fully pay off the entirety of your outstanding IRS back tax debt.
As an example, it works like this:
- You owe the IRS $250,000 in total back taxes
- You have a piece of property you’re going to sell for $200,000
- You owe $75,000 in mortgage debt against the property which precedes your IRS debt
- The IRS has a lien against this property set at $100,000
- The sale value minus encumbrances senior to the IRS lien (your mortgage) is thus:
- $200,000 Sale Price
- Minus $75,000 Mortgage Debt
- Equals $125,000 in equity
In this case, you’ll be allowed to sell the property for $200,000, you’ll pay off the $75,000 mortgage, leaving $125,000 in proceeds remaining, which leaves enough room for the IRS to take the full value of their $100,000 lien against this piece of property.
Even though the $100,000 you give the IRS from this property’s sale isn’t enough to cover your full $250,000 in back taxes, they’ll still let you go through with the sale since you’re going to make enough to cover the full value of the lien they placed against the property.
The IRS gets their $100,000 cut, and you end up still owing them $150,000 that you’ll have to deal with in other ways, but at least this piece of property will be sold, the lien will be removed
IRS Provision 6325(b)(2)(B)
Here’s a case where you’ll actually get a Federal tax lien removed without having to pay it, but unfortunately, it only happens in circumstances that aren’t actually useful to you either.
Under this provision, the IRS will cancel it’s tax lien on your property if and only if they decide that their interest in the property has no value.
Basically, this happens if your debts senior to the federal tax lien are higher than the market value of the property, or higher than the final sale value of the property, or if the value of the property has gone to zero for some reason, or even turned negative.
The most common cause of this is if you’re “underwater” or “upside down” on the asset that the IRS places the tax lien against, because you owe more money than the asset is worth.
This discharge option can lead some people to perform clever accounting or borrowing techniques to ensure the IRS can’t get anything out of them; as long as they owe more than all their assets are worth, there’s nothing left for the IRS to squeeze from them.
IRS Provision 6325(b)(3)
This provision lets you sell property with a tax lien on it if you’re able to negotiate an agreement with the IRS on how the proceeds of the sale are to be distributed.
Typically, the funds must be distributed by paying the debts in the order that they were accumulated against the asset, with the IRS falling in line wherever they should in terms of when the debts were created, but getting their fair share of the property’s value once it is sold.
As an example, it works like this:
- Assume you’re selling a property worth $250,000
- You already had 2 mortgages against the property before you accumulated IRS debt against it
- Mortgage 1 was for $100,000
- Mortgage 2 was for $50,000
- You then accumulated $50,000 in IRS debt
- You then took 2 more mortgages out against the property, after the IRS debt was accumulated
- Mortgage 3 was for $25,000
- Mortgage 4 was for $10,000
- When the property sells, per your agreement with the IRS, you’ll need to use the sale proceeds to pay off these debts in the following order:
- Mortgage 1: $100,000
- Mortgage 2: $50,000
- IRS Debt: $50,000
- Mortgage 3: $25,000
- Mortgage 4: $10,000
- Leftover Funds you keep: $15,000
In this case, the IRS will let you sell the asset because they know they’re going to get their cut of the proceeds, which is honestly all that they really care about.
IRS Provision 6325(b)(4)
In this case, a third party who owns the property with a lien on it can have the tax lien discharged if someone pays the IRS their fair share of the lien.
The IRS requires that this be paid via a deposit, or a bond that’s equal to their interest in the property, and I think that this is only going to apply to people acquiring properties with tax liens placed on them before they owned them.
This is actually a pretty common thing as investors love scouring the public records for properties with tax liens, since they can usually be had for pennies on the dollar (knowing that the owners are under significant financial distress, and are often willing to sell for far below market value!).
I don’t think you’d care about this option at all as the original owner of the property, unless you’re just trying to liquidate an asset and the lien itself is the only thing holding up the sale; I guess you could work out a deal to sell the property to that third party by having them pay off the lien, then pay you for the property’s remaining value as it’s purchase price.
IRS Provision 6325(c)
This Provision offers Federal Tax Lien Discharges for Estates, as they’re being passed down from one generation to the next.
IRS Form 4422, the “Application for Certificate Discharging Property Subject to Estate Tax Lien” covers the process, and it’s incredibly complex, so I’m not going to break it down in detail here.
Simply look up IRS Form 4422 for information on how this is handled.
While the IRS lists “Subordination” under the options for getting rid of a tax lien, the reality is that subordination doesn’t remove the lien at all, but instead allows you to reshuffle the creditors around, putting others ahead of the IRS’s claim against your property.
Typically, this is done to make it easier for you to get a loan or a mortgage against the property with a tax lien attached to it, and the IRS will only allow you to do that in the first place if you work out some kind of an arrangement with them that you’ll use at least a portion of those funds to pay off some of your tax debt.
To get a Certificate of Subordination, you must convince the IRS that it’s in their best interests over the long run to subordinate their debt because it’ll end up giving them more money over the total lifespan of your ownership in the property they’ve issued a lien against, which isn’t all that easy to do.
Basically, this is only going to happen if your mortgage company or other institution you owe money to offers you a refinance or a workout (workout means some kind of debt renegotiation), and then the IRS is only going to offer to subordinate their claim on the property in order to make it easier for that refinance or workout to get approved.
The reason they’d allow this to go through is that it can keep you solvent, keep a business running, or allow you to retain ownership or gain liquidity using the asset they’ve placed a lien on, and that they believe doing this will put you in a better position to pay off your IRS debt over the long run.
Keep in mind that when the IRS subordinates their lien, it’s not removed, but just moved down lower in the order of who gets paid when and if the property ends up being sold.
The details for Subordination are covered in the IRS’s “Certificate of Subordination of Federal Tax Lien” document, which you can find here.
Getting a “Withdrawal” is basically the only time that the IRS truly removes a lien against your property, allowing you to avoid paying back the value of that lien using that property’s equity, but there is a catch…
Even though the IRS agrees to remove the lien on the property, they’re still going to require that you pay back the debt that lien was put in place to collect, just via some other process.
Now, with that said, there are two options for getting a Tax Lien Withdrawal, each of which were introduced as a result of the IRS’s Fresh Start Initiative, which are:
- Removing the Lien After the Lien’s Release
- Removing the Lien By Entering Into a Direct Debit Installment Agreement
Here’s how each of these Withdrawal options work:
Withdrawal After the Lien’s Release
To quality for a lien withdrawal after a lien’s release, you must have satisfied the full tax liabilities of your lien, get your lien released, and:
- Be in compliance for at least three years with all IRS filling rules, including for all your individual return, your business return and your information return requirements
- Be current on your estimated tax payments and federal tax deposits
Basically, the lien only disappears after you’ve taken care of it by paying off the amount you owed, and then making sure you don’t break any IRS rules for a period of at least three years.
Once again, this isn’t a free lunch – you only get the lien withdrawn after you’ve fully complied with the IRS’s demands.
Withdrawal for Entering Into a Direct Debit Installment Agreement
The easier, better option for getting a Federal tax lien withdrawal is to enroll in the IRS’s Direct Debit Installment Agreement Program, which basically means enrolling in Autopay for your IRS back tax debt.
To qualify for this program, you must:
- Be a qualifying taxpayer
- Owe under $25,000 to the IRS
- Have a Direct Debt Installment Agreement that is structured to pay the full amount you owe within 60 moths, or before your Collection Statute expires (whichever comes soonest)
- Be in full compliance with all IRS filing and payment requirements
- Have made three consecutive direct debt payments
- Not have defaulted on any current or previous Direct Debit Installment Agreements
This is probably the single best way to remove an IRS Federal tax lien, since it doesn’t require paying everything off, but simply agreeing that you eventually will get the debt taken care of.
In my opinion, it’s the most lucrative program to pursue if you’re battling against a lien which you do plan on paying off, rather than fighting tooth and claw, because it at least gives you some breathing room to deal with the debt over a longer period of time.
Why Should I Worry About an IRS Lien At All?
Some people may feel like they can just ignore an IRS lien completely, after all, it isn’t a levy and doesn’t mean the IRS gets to literally seize your assets, it just means that if you ever do try to sell the property they’ve placed a lien on, the IRS will be able to take a cut of the sale.
And for a lot of people, that’s a threat that won’t be realized until way down the line, especially if the lien is in place against their house, business, or some other asset that they don’t plan on liquidating at any point in the near future, or perhaps even after the 10 year statute of collections has run up.
However, it is important to understand just how a lien affects you, so here’s some details on why you may want to take care of an IRS lien:
Liens Can Negatively Impact Your Credit
When the IRS does place a lien against one of your assets, by law, they must issue a public Notice of Federal Tax Lien, which basically alerts anyone and everyone that you are in debt to the IRS, and that you have tried to avoid paying them back.
This is going to influence your credit in a major way, plummeting your score and cutting off your ability to get access to additional funds.
If you don’t care what your credit score is, because you don’t need to borrow money to buy a house, car, or to fund a business, then perhaps it won’t be a big deal for you, but most of us do need good or even excellent credit in order to make it through day to day life.
Poor credit can prevent you from getting a good job, renting a nice apartment, and it will certainly cut you off from being able to borrow additional funds, so it’s important to keep this aspect in mind when determining what to do about an IRS tax lien.
Liens Can Get Applied to All Your Assets
Basically, if the IRS chooses to place a lien against any of your assets, they’ll probably place them against ALL of them.
The IRS isn’t stupid, and they won’t just attach a lien to your house, leaving your vacation rental, cars, and businesses untouched, because that leaves you room to maneuver without paying them back.
Once the IRS decides to get a lien against something you own, they’re highly likely to place liens on EVERYTHING you own.
That could leave you strangled financially, without any opportunities to make any sorts of moves that allow you to come up with cash, liquidate assets, etc., meaning you’re basically stuck and can’t realize any of the equity you’ve accumulated in your assets.
Liens Can Take Money From Your Business
The IRS can place a lien against your business, which may not sound like a big deal if you don’t plan on selling anytime soon.
However, not only will the lien hurt your business’s ability to borrow money, but the lien can also be attached to accounts receivable, meaning that any time you get paid, the IRS can take a cut of the proceeds.
This would basically be like having your wages garnished, but applied to a business’s revenue instead of personal income, and having a lien attached to your business is one way to prevent that business from succeeding.
You’ll definitely need to weigh the pros and cons of the lien being applied to your business revenue when determining your calculations for dealing with IRS debt.
Liens Can Last Through Bankruptcy
Finally, don’t think that you can simply file for bankruptcy to eliminate a lien, because the IRS is more clever than you are and they’ve been able to pass friendly laws that allow liens to survive through bankruptcy.
In my experience, only two things survive a bankruptcy, Federal Student Loan Debt and IRS Back Tax Debt.
Is it any wonder that each of these are owned by the Government, and that it’s illegal to discharge them even when you end up having to hit the nuclear button?
Sure, you won’t be prevented from filing for bankruptcy even if you have a lien attached to your property, but just remember that even though bankruptcy may wipe out all your other debts, that lien is going to carry right on through unscathed.
How Can I Avoid an IRS Tax Lien?
The best way to prevent an IRS tax lien from going into place is to simply pay the IRS whatever amount of money it is that they claim you owe.
Even if you can’t get it to them all at once, you definitely need to start working on negotiating a plan with paying down your debt, as the IRS is pretty forgiving in terms of allowing you to structure payments.
Remember, Federal tax liens are only instituted after the IRS has determined you’ve given up on paying them back, and are basically going to ignore their attempts to collect the debt you owe, so as long as you’re making it look like you’re trying to work with them, you should be able to prevent the lien from going into place.
You’ll need to be careful about leading them on for too long, however, because eventually whoever handles your account will simply get frustrated, give up, and slap a lien against your assets.
Now – with that said – if you don’t have any assets, because you don’t own any valuable property of any sort, then you really don’t have much to fear from an IRS lien either, because again, they’re only able to do damage when you’ve got equity in something.
What Are My Best Options for Dealing with IRS Debt?
There are all sorts of ways to deal with your IRS debt that don’t leave you penniless, and which allow you to avoid an IRS lien ever being created.
Again, the key is making sure that the IRS understands you want to settle your debt with them in a reasonable fashion, and that you aren’t simply walking away from the negotiating table.
For tips and advice on all sorts of options you’ve got when it comes to dealing with the IRS, make sure to check out some of the other Guides I’ve produced for this site, including:
- Getting a Tax Extension
- Filing & Paying Back Taxes
- Tax Penalties, Fines & Fees
- Tax Debt Forgiveness Programs
- Tax Debt Settlement Programs
- Tax Debt Resolution Services
- The IRS Collections Process
- Avoiding IRS Phone Call Scams
Please feel free to look through the Guides listed above, where you’ll find access to all sorts of detailed information about each step of the process for dealing with tax-related problems.
Alternatively, if you still have Questions about how to approach your IRS problems, please feel free to ask them in Comments section below.
I review Comments regularly, and will do my best to get you a response within 24 hours!
How Can I Find Out if I Have a Tax Lien?
First, you’ll certainly have received a notice from the IRS, called the Notice of Federal Tax Lien, which informed you that they’re placing a lien against an asset of yours.
If you never saw a letter, but think you may have a lien in place, try calling the Centralized Lien Operation (an official IRS department), which should be able to inform you on your status. You can reach them at 1 800-913-6050.
Next, because tax liens must be publicly recorded in the country where your property is located, you can use the website for your state’s Secretary of State and search for “liens” or “UCC”, which should get you to the page where you’re able to perform a federal tax lien search.
If you can’t find this information online, then contact your Secretary of State in writing and officially request that they provide any details associated with you.
Finally, you could actually visit the County Recorder’s office where the lien must be filed (per law) and ask if there’s a lien against your property, and this would certainly be able to tell you whether or not you own the property free and clear.
Where Can I Go for Additional Assistance with Tax Liens?
There are several places you may want to consider contacting if you need help dealing with a tax lien, including:
- For General Information about IRS tax liens, straight from the IRS itself, call 1 800-913-6050
- For Complex Issues regarding IRS tax liens, including details on subordination, withdrawal, etc., contact your Local IRS Advisory Office
- To Appeal an IRS Notice of Federal Tax Lien, read through the IRS’s Publication 1660, on “Collection Appeal Rights”, here
- To get help from an independent organization within the IRS, call their Taxpayer Advocate Service at 1 877-777-4778
- Finally, if you’ve filed for Bankruptcy and want to find out how this may affect your IRS debt, call the IRS’ Centralized Insolvency Operations Unit at 1-800-973-0424
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, please do feel free to post questions in the Comments section below as well, and I’ll do my best to get you a reply within 24 hours.
To put together this Guide, I used information from all around the web, but primarily I rely on the IRS’s official website and their own internal documents.
Here are some specific sources I used to construct the material for this Guide:
- Understanding a Federal Tax Lien – https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/understanding-a-federal-tax-lien
- What’s the Difference Between a Levy and a Lien? – https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/whats-the-difference-between-a-levy-and-a-lien
- IRS Instructions on How to Apply for a Certificate of Discharge From Federal Tax Lien – https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p783.pdf
- IRS Instructions on How to Apply for a Certificate of Subordination of Federal Tax Lien – https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p784.pdf
- IRS Payment Options – https://www.irs.gov/payments
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