What is a 'Tax Lien'

A tax lien is a legal claim by a government entity against a noncompliant taxpayer's assets. Tax liens are a last resort to force an individual or business to pay back taxes. To get rid of a lien, the taxpayer must pay what he or she owes, get the debt dismissed in bankruptcy court or reach an offer in compromise with the tax authorities. Federal and state governments may place tax liens for unpaid federal or state income taxes, while local governments may place tax liens for unpaid local income or property taxes.

BREAKING DOWN 'Tax Lien'

If the taxes remain unpaid, the tax authority can then use a tax levy to legally seize the taxpayer's assets (such as bank accounts, investment accounts, automobiles and real property) in order to collect the money it is owed. Tax liens are publicly recorded and may be reported to credit agencies. These two features of tax liens effectively prevent the sale or refinancing of assets to which liens have been attached, and prevent the delinquent taxpayer from borrowing money.

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