Individuals and businesses with outstanding tax balances due can face severe penalties from the Internal Revenue Services (IRS), including the eventual seizure of personal or business assets in some cases. To handle this dilemma—which can trigger a significant financial crisis—a new type of business has sprung up to help delinquent taxpayers cope with their tax debts.

Known commonly as tax settlement firms, these entities claim they can either drastically reduce or completely eliminate whatever the client owes the IRS. But can these firms really deliver what they promise or is it buyer beware? This article examines how tax settlement firms work and their success rate. Read on to find out more.

Key Takeaways

  • Tax settlement firms claim to have a litany of experts—former IRS employees—who can go to bat for their clients.
  • Promises by tax settlement agencies are virtually impossible to fulfill because the IRS rarely accepts any real proposal to reduce the amount of tax owed. 
  • Qualifying for offers-in-compromise is difficult and typically take at least several months to complete.
  • Most tax settlement companies charge high fees.

What Are Tax Settlement Firms?

You've probably seen the advertisements on television. Desperate people who owe tens of thousands of dollars to the IRS and no one to help them out. Cue the tax settlement firm, which steps in and leaves their clients amazing messages that says their tax liability is miraculously reduced by hundreds or thousands of dollars. Clients are elated, being left more than satisfied. But that's television, and things doesn't necessarily work that way in reality.

If you're confused about the tax settlement industry and what it does, think of the debt settlement business. The two work in the same way to some degree. Most firms that specialize in tax settlements claim to have a litany of tax experts at their disposal who are former IRS employees who can go to bat for their clients. In reality, this may be a substantial misrepresentation—at least in some cases.

Although there may be a few lawyers and a handful of people in the company who worked for the IRS at some point, the majority of employees probably haven't. In fact, the majority of employees may be little more than minimum-wage customer service representatives.

What They Offer

Most tax settlement firms promise to send their experts to the IRS to negotiate on behalf of the client, where they can presumably persuade the agency to accept a much smaller amount—often pennies on the dollar. In reality, this is virtually impossible to do, and the IRS rarely accepts any real reduction in the amount of tax owed. There are, of course, several very extenuating circumstances where Uncle Sam accepts a deal for repayment of back taxes including:

  • If the taxpayer is near death
  • If the debtor is unable to obtain any type of gainful employment
  • If the person owing taxes has absolutely no assets whatsoever that could be used in a meaningful way to cover the required tax liabilities

The best everyone else can hope for is perhaps an extension of time to pay off their tax debts.

Offer in Compromise

Tax settlement firms use an accepted IRS procedure known as an offer in compromise in an effort to reduce their clients' tax bills. This is a special agreement that some taxpayers are able make with the IRS to settle their tax debts for a lesser amount than what is owed. The taxpayer must supply substantial information to the IRS about his or her current assets and liabilities as well as projected future income.

Offers-in-compromise also typically take at least several months to complete and qualifying for one of these offers may be more difficult than qualifying for Medicaid. There is no spend-down strategy available for this avenue.

The number of offer-in-compromise applications that actually get approved is generally very low. In order to have such a reduction approved, taxpayers must prove that the total amount owed is incorrect, the probability of being able to pay back the full amount is very low, or paying back the full amount will result in tremendous financial hardship.

The auditor's review isn't always the last word. Many taxpayers who are audited can successfully appeal their audits and save thousands of dollars.

Tax Settlement Firm Price Tag

The majority of tax settlement companies charge their clients an initial fee that can easily run anywhere between $3,000 to $6,000, depending on the size of the tax bill and proposed settlement. In most cases, this fee is completely nonrefundable. This fee quite often mysteriously mirrors the amount of free cash the client has available. This is generally the amount of cash the company says it will save the client in tax payments.

Clients have also complained to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) that some of these firms have not produced any of the promised results and, in fact, the organization was a scam. Many firms also materially misrepresent their fees to clients, perhaps charging them initially with a lower fee before coming back for more once they are deeply involved in the process.

Settlement Firm's Success Rate

As stated previously, the IRS rejects the majority of offers-in-compromise it receives each year. Therefore, the number of clients who get satisfaction from tax settlement companies is probably somewhere below 10% and most of them are virtually destitute financially. The vast majority of potential settlement clients need to work out payment plans with the IRS that allow them to clear out their tax balances over time while keeping their assets—and dignity.

Who's For Real?

There are several red flags that should warn any prospective customers considering hiring a tax settlement firm. Any firm that promises a drastic reduction of a customer's taxes without first getting a detailed financial background on that person is likely going to end up being a scam. Any tax agent who does not ask a customer why the client owes the IRS money is not conducting the full due diligence process that would be required for a proper appeal.

Any reputable firm will first obtain key financial data from its customers before giving them a realistic assessment of what they can do for a reasonable fixed fee. Prospective clients would be wise to find a local firm that's been in business for several years and has a presence in the community.

Warnings from the IRS

The IRS is probably the most difficult of all creditors with whom many taxpayers have to deal. It has the legal power to seize assets and push forward with extreme collections measures, and therefore many delinquent taxpayers find the agency much more intimidating than private debt collectors or credit card companies. Tax preparation firms play heavily upon this fear, promising a lifeline of professional help that can make their problems go away. Don't be fooled by misleading claims from these outfits that first require substantial up-front payments.

The IRS itself previously issued warnings to the public about fraudulent firms, citing many of the problems listed here. If you can't pay your taxes, know that the IRS has many avenues for collecting what you owe. Publication 594: The IRS Collection Process offers a detailed description of the Offer in Compromise process and a description of the collections process. Compare that information to anything you are told by a tax settlement firm to make sure you have been given correct information before you make any decision whether to retain the firm or not.

The Bottom Line

The tax settlement business is fraught with peril at every turn. Those who seek assistance with their unpaid tax balances should have their tax or financial advisor refer them to a qualified tax attorney with years of experience dealing with this issue. They should also be prepared to undergo extensive financial analysis and a bureaucratic process that may stretch out for months. Most of all, they should be prepared to hear the word no from the IRS in the end.