DEFINITION of 'Federal Tax Lien'

A federally authorized lien against any and all assets of a taxpayer who has unpaid back taxes. The lien allows the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to secure or otherwise requisition the taxpayer's property in order to secure payment. Federal tax liens can be assessed for unpaid taxes of any kind, including income, self-employment, gift or estate taxes.

BREAKING DOWN 'Federal Tax Lien'

Federal tax liens differ from tax levies in that they only denote the government's right to seize property, as opposed to the actual seizure of it. The IRS will often "perfect" a tax lien by filing notice with states and other creditors that it is first in line to receive payment for back taxes. Having a federal tax lien will substantially downgrade one's credit score, and in many cases this lien must be paid off in full before the taxpayer can obtain financing.

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