What is a Federal Tax Lien?
A Federal Tax Lien (FTL) is a legal instrument that secures the claim of the United States in the right, title, and interest of a debtor taxpayer's assets. It is a public document and is recorded at the County Clerk's office or the Secretary of State, depending on local law. This is done to serve notice on all creditors or other interested parties of the government's claim.
The Federal Tax Lien is a negative item on the credit bureau report of the debtor. It may result in some creditors calling in their notes upon becoming aware of the FTL.
The FTL generally becomes the most senior claim against the debtor's assets with the exception of first mortgage holders who have properly filed financing documents. The Federal Tax Lien may also displace the primary security position of factoring firms lending on accounts receivable and bank revolving lines of credit 45 days after filing (each situation is unique and must be considered on individual circumstances). Certain claims may trump an FTL such as legitimate mechanic's liens, local taxes, and perfected landlord liens.
In some jurisdictions, local law provides for separate filing of liens for real property and personal property. In that case, the IRS will file two identical liens, one under personal property records and one under real property records. Failure to file both could result in the government's claim not being perfected on all assets. If the debtor is a corporation, failure to file at the Secretary of State may also result in an imperfect claim depending on local law.
The FTL is the basis for IRS legal authority to foreclose on debtor assets by conducting a seizure. Since the IRS Reform Act of 1998, seizures by IRS Revenue Officers have dropped dramatically. The lien is not to be confused with an IRS levy. The IRS can levy on a debtor taxpayer's bank accounts or wages without a FTL. IRS only needs a valid assessment and must have served legal notice in the form of a certified mail letter to the debtor's last known address 30 days prior to levy. However, often the IRS has filed an FTL before levy action even though it is not required.
If not filed, a FTL can be avoided by entering into an Installment Payment Agreement with IRS in most cases. Once filed; absent special circumstances, it is not released until the debt is satisfied. One may negotiate with IRS to subrogate the federal lien to another debt if it is in the mutual interest of the government and the debtor taxpayer. A lien may also be discharged from a specific property if IRS approves and gets proper financial consideration. Normally, only if the FTL is paid in full, the statute of limitations expires, or IRS agrees to an Offer-in-Compromise and is paid a settlement; will the FTL be released.
One can appeal the filing of a FTL but they must have a good case to overturn one. If you can show that the FTL will actually hurt the ability of the government to recover payment or that the tax assessment is incorrect, there is a chance of succeeding.
Hire a good Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Enrolled Agent (EA), or Tax Attorney if you need IRS help. If you cannot afford professional assistance, the IRS does have help in the form of the Taxpayer Advocate's Office. The help is hard to get because you have to go through some "red tape." But if you try hard, they might work with you.
James Robert Coleman, E. A., A. T.A.
Enrolled Agent & Accredited Tax Advisor
Member: National Association of Enrolled Agents
Former IRS Revenue Officer, GS-11