The Difference: IRS Tax Lien vs. Tax Levy
If you’re reading this, the chances are high that you’re one of the many, many people who have received a notice from the Internal Revenue Service. Some level of correspondence with the IRS is natural ‒ particularly leading up to and in the immediate aftermath of tax season. But if you’ve received notification that the government is about to file a tax lien or tax levy against you, suddenly you’re talking about an entirely different ballgame.
But the most important thing you can do at this point is stay calm. Yes, both of these notices mean that your financial situation has just gotten significantly more complicated. But you do have rights in each scenario that you would do well to protect at all costs.
What Is an IRS Tax Lien?
An IRS tax lien is a very specific type of claim that the government (in this case, the Internal Revenue Service) makes on your property. That property can include but is not limited to real estate and other types of assets. Typically, this is something that occurs when you’re past due on your income taxes and you’ve failed to make proper arrangements to get yourself back up to date again.
A tax lien can affect you in a number of different ways, all of which are less than ideal. Even though tax liens no longer appear on your credit report, your credit rating will still suffer ‒ thus harming your ability to get a loan or secure new credit for your business. Tax liens also usually appear during title searches, which can impact your ability to sell your house or refinance the mortgage you already have.
What Is an IRS Tax Levy?
A tax lien is essentially the first part in a two-step process. That second step takes the form of a tax levy, which involves the actual seizure of the property in question in an effort to pay the tax money you owe. Via a tax levy, the IRS can do everything from garnish your wages, seize assets like real estate or even take control of your bank accounts to get their money.
At the very least, you’re likely to go through wage garnishment ‒ meaning that you’ll be taking home far less money at the end of the week in your paycheck. A 21-day hold might be placed on your bank account in an effort to encourage you to “work things out,” and if you don’t, they may even try to seize your home as a last resort.
Luckily, there are a few things that the IRS CAN’T seize even by way of a tax levy. These include things like unemployment benefits, certain pension benefits, disability payments, workers’ compensation and others.
What Can I Do About Them?
Thankfully, even in the unfortunate event of a lien or levy, you do still have some options available to you.
More than anything, if you CAN pay your tax bill, you SHOULD pay your tax bill. If necessary, get on an IRS payment plan to help you get back up to date. Yes, your past due balance will continue to accrue both interest and penalties until you’ve paid it off. But the choice between paying interest and losing your house isn’t really a choice at all.
It’s also important for you to actively work to protect your rights if you feel it necessary to do so. After receiving either a lien or a levy notice, you can always file an appeal with the IRS Office of Appeals if you feel you’re being treated unfairly. It is within your right to ask for a conference with the IRS agent’s manager so that your case can be reviewed by a fresh set of eyes. If nothing else, this is a great way to make sure that your side of the story is known.
You can also apply for a Withdrawal of the Notice of Federal Tax Lien, which will remove the public notice of a tax lien filing. If the IRS has notified you that any of your property is about to be seized, you can file something called a Certificate of Discharge. This will remove the property in question from the effects of the tax lien, allowing you to sell something like your home (or another asset) without worrying.
All of this can be confusing and stressful. Working with a seasoned tax professional can take negotiating with the IRS off your hands.