An offer in compromise (OIC) is an agreement between a taxpayer and the Internal Revenue Service that settles the taxpayer’s tax liabilities for less than the full amount owed. Don’t get too excited – it is not that easy. Unless there are special circumstances, an offer in compromise will not be accepted if the IRS believes that the taxpayer can pay the liability in full either as a lump sum or through a payment agreement.
In most cases, the IRS will not accept an OIC unless the amount offered by the taxpayer is equal to or greater than the reasonable collection potential (RCP). The RCP is how the IRS measures the taxpayer’s ability to pay and includes the value that can be realized from the taxpayer’s assets, such as real property, automobiles, bank accounts, and other property. The RCP also includes anticipated future income, less certain amounts allowed for basic living expenses.
There are three grounds for acceptance of an OIC: 1) doubt as to collectibility, 2) doubt as to liability, and 3) effective tax administration.
Doubt as to collectibility applies when it appears unlikely that the taxpayer can pay all that is due within the statutory period for collection. Doubt as to liability exists when there is legitimate doubt about the correctness of the assessment. The examining agent may have made a mistake, or there could be an argument over interpretation, or perhaps the taxpayer has come up with new evidence. Effective tax administration exists when the taxpayer can demonstrate that the collection of the tax would create an economic hardship or would be unfair or inequitable.
Don’t think that an OIC is a way to make a deal with the IRS to split the difference. It’s not that kind of compromise. It is based on a formula to determine what the taxpayer can pay from what they owe and what they earn (the reasonable collection potential). Offers less than that amount are typically not accepted. The rules for application of the formula are very complicated. The taxpayer must present a complete financial picture to the IRS, detailing assets and liabilities, income and expenses.
An OIC is not for everyone. It actually prevents taxpayers from disputing the underlying liability at appeals or in tax court. Negotiating an installment plan that is a realistic payment plan may be a better alternative for the taxpayer. An installment plan works much like any installment loan. Those who are struggling financially catch up on their tax debt by making smaller payments over a period of time. While this may translate to paying more in total (because of interest rates and penalty charges), it’s often a workable alternative.
An OIC is a lengthy and time-consuming process. Only about 15% of applicants actually reduce their debt through the OIC program. Because the filing and process are complex, it is highly recommended that you get professional advice in preparing and negotiating the offer. You need a tax attorney, a CPA, or an Enrolled Agent. Make sure you find someone with experience in IRS collection matters. A professional can help maximize the possibility that the OIC is accepted and the tax debt is minimized.
Beware of scams where promoters claim that tax debts can be settled for "pennies on the dollar." You’ve probably seen them on late-night TV. These scammers collect high fees and then don’t deliver on the promise – because they can’t in most cases. Some preparers collect fees but then fill out and file a form but provide no backup documentation and do not negotiate with the IRS. This is a waste of time and money. If the advertising refers to a "tax settlement specialist", run the other way.
An OIC is made on Form 656. There is a $150 application fee that must accompany the form. You cannot file an OIC if you are in bankruptcy. A taxpayer filing a lump-sum offer must pay 20 percent of the offer amount with the application. A lump-sum offer means any offer of payments made in five or fewer installments. A taxpayer filing a periodic-payment offer must pay the first proposed installment payment with the application and pay additional installments while the IRS is evaluating the offer. A periodic-payment offer means any offer of payments made in six or more installments.