DEFINITION of Back Taxes

Back taxes are taxes that have been partially or fully unpaid in the year that they were due. Taxpayers can have unpaid back taxes at the federal, state and/or local levels. Back taxes accumulate interest and penalties on a regular basis.


Back taxes refer to taxes owed from a prior year. A taxpayer may be behind in paying taxes for intentional or unintentional reasons. Some of these reasons include – filing a return and failing to pay the tax liability; failing to report all income earned during the tax year, and; neglecting to file a tax return for a given tax year. If taxes remain unpaid after multiple notices have been sent by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), a minimum penalty fee of $135 will be charged in addition to interest on the unpaid amount, which is 0.5% per month that the tax payer is late, up to 25%. As the total tax debt increases each month due to penalty and interest, over time, it can grow into a significant amount.

Unpaid back taxes can be a serious issue for many taxpayers who don't have the means to pay them. Depending upon the circumstances, the government may take one of many strategies to deal with back taxes, such as pressing charges, demanding that that the taxpayer pay immediately, or sometimes offering a voluntary disclosure program which helps avoid criminal charges and allows a variety of payment options. Failure to pay taxes can also involve imprisonment.

In some cases, the IRS will seize property, seize assets, or place liens on property. The IRS may place a federal tax lien to inform other creditors of the taxing authority’s legal right to a taxpayer’s assets and property. A tax lien goes up on a debtor’s credit report and remains there for 10 years. The IRS also has the power to garnish a taxpayer’s wages and to levy their financial accounts, seizing up to the total amount of taxes owed. If the taxes remain unpaid, the tax authority can 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. While a lien secures the government’s interest or claim in an individual’s or business’ property when the tax debt remains unpaid, a levy actually permits the government to seize and sell the property in order to pay the tax debt.

In 2016, the IRS turned over the collection of unpaid back taxes to a private collection agency. However, taxpayers who lack the means to repay taxes may often negotiate a lesser settlement via an Offer in Compromise with the IRS either directly or through a tax attorney.