6 ways the IRS and NYS are collecting back taxes

Guest post by Karen J. Tenenbaum, Esq., LLM, CPA, Tax Attorney at Tenenbaum Law, P.C.


Taxpayers who owe money to the IRS or New York State face an expanding arsenal of tools the government is using to collect back taxes. The federal and state governments are using similar tactics, but each with their own twist. Due to the success of some of these methods, taxpayers and tax professionals can expect to see them more often. Here are a few of the top collection tactics.

1) Private debt collectors                                                                   

Both the IRS and New York State have recently started using outside collection agencies to collect delinquent taxes. The IRS uses private debt collectors for tax liabilities of less than $50,000. Private debt collectors are only allowed to locate taxpayers, ask taxpayers if they can pay in full, or set up a five-year Installment Agreement if they cannot pay in full. Despite criticism of the program and collectors’ tactics, they are permitted to contact taxpayers by phone, unlike government agencies. The private agencies cannot collect any actual payments; those are made directly to the IRS. The agencies receive 25% of the funds collected. Currently, the IRS is using four agencies: CDE Group, Conserve, Performant, and Pioneer. Note that taxpayers who have accounts in Offer in Compromise, Installment Agreement, Collection Due Process, and Innocent Spouse Relief status are exempt.

New York State is currently contracted with one outside collection agency: Performant Recovery Inc. As with the IRS, taxpayers will continue to make payments directly to the state, not the collection agency.

2) IRS passport revocation

Since the end of 2015, a taxpayer can lose his/her passport if he/she owes the IRS $50,000 or more including penalties and interest. The Secretary of State is permitted to deny the issuance or renewal of a passport or revoke the passport of that individual. The IRS must give notice to the individual involved at the same time it gives notice to the Secretary of State that the taxpayer is “seriously delinquent.”

If the individual is outside the United States, the Secretary of State may also limit a previously issued passport only for return travel to the United States or issue a limited passport that only permits return travel to the United States.

3) NYS driver’s license suspensions

The State can suspend an NYS Driver’s license if the driver owes $10,000 or more in tax, penalty, and interest and there is no collection resolution in place (such as an Installment Payment Agreement, Income Execution, or Offer-in-Compromise). New York State has collected over $715 million in back taxes to date from this program.

An added twist to this tactic is the Multi-State Driver License Compact. Many taxpayers think that if their New York State driver license is suspended, they can simply get one from New Jersey or Florida. However, 45 states and the District of Columbia have entered into the Compact, which is an interstate information exchange. If the taxpayer’s license is suspended in any member state, that suspension will hold in all other member states. The only states not in the program are Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

4) Liens

A New York State Tax Warrant is a legal judgment and notice for priority. It is a perfected lien and enables New York State to take certain collection action against a taxpayer’s real and personal assets. A Tax Warrant also ensures that New York will get paid ahead of subsequent creditors. It is a public document, and can be found on the Department of State’s website. It should be noted that there is now a single 20-year statute of limitations on collections, which begins on the first day that a tax warrant could have been filed.

The IRS uses a federal tax lien to collect back taxes. If a tax isn’t paid after a formal request, the Internal Revenue Code grants the IRS an automatic lien, sometimes referred to as a “silent lien” against all of a taxpayer’s property and rights to property. It even attaches to property acquired after the assessment itself.

The IRS files a Notice of Federal Tax Lien in order to establish collection priority. The IRS must collect a tax liability within 10 years from the date of assessment.

5) Levies on wages

In New York, an income execution is a type of levy that is issued against a taxpayer’s gross wages. It is limited to 10% of gross earnings and it remains in effect until the underlying tax liability is satisfied. The state is not required to issue a tax warrant prior to entering into an income execution.

At the federal level, the IRS can also levy on a taxpayer’s wages. Federal wage garnishment is quite harsh, since the IRS takes almost everything. The employer is provided an exemption table to calculate the amount of wages exempt from the levy based on the number of exemptions claimed by the taxpayer.

6) Other levies

New York can collect on a taxpayer’s outstanding liabilities with various types of levies, including: bank levies that last for a 90-day period; levies on third parties, such as customers or tenants; refunds and offsets; and seizure and sale at tax auction. 

The IRS can also levy on property, including bank accounts, provided it meets notice requirements and gives the taxpayer an opportunity to file a request for a collection due process hearing.

In order to avoid or stop these collection actions, both the IRS and New York State offer ways for taxpayers to address their debts. An IRS Installment Agreement or NYS Installment Payment Agreement allows taxpayers who are financially unable to pay the full amount of the liability at once to pay in monthly installments over time. Taxpayers who cannot afford to pay their tax bill may qualify for an Offer in Compromise, wherein the government agrees to accept less than the full amount due of tax, interest, and penalties. Both options have stringent requirements.

If you are facing an audit or collection matter, consult a qualified tax professional.


Karen Tenenbaum, Esq., LL.M. (Taxation), CPA is founder and partner of Tenenbaum Law, P.C., a tax law firm in Melville, New York, which has focused its practice on the resolution of IRS and New York State tax controversies for over 20 years.