filing taxes tax tipsWhen I started in the tax field, working with the IRS on installment agreements and Offers in Compromise was like standing in quicksand. The IRS made obscure rules and changed them arbitrarily. It acted as an utter tyrant.

Then, in the 1980s, there were a series of Senate hearings about the problems, and what emerged was a kinder, gentler IRS.

This has been the case for roughly the last three decades, but these last couple of years, it’s been getting harder for taxpayers to cut deals and get help with filing taxes. Some of that is due to the mass exodus of experienced IRS officers and the hiring of new, inexperienced staff members that are given an abbreviated training program.

We could have problems this year, too. Due to the sequester and the resulting budget cuts the IRS is facing, it may be harder to schedule meetings with IRS officials to discuss your case or your appeal. Staff will be taking furlough days and shutting down operations several times this year.

Despite these issues, however, there are things you can do to try and settle your tax debts with the IRS.

Apply for a fresh start

The IRS implemented what it calls a Fresh Start initiative to make it easier for the average taxpayer to get either an installment agreement or Offer in Compromise.

Folks who owe the IRS $25,000 or less could be approved for an installment agreement by applying online. Of course, you can only be approved if all your tax returns have been filed. Non-filers will probably get rejected.

An installment agreement is a payment plan that allows taxpayers to pay debts owed to the IRS over time in the form of monthly payments. An Offer in Compromise allows taxpayers to settle with the IRS for less than the debt owed.

To apply for the Fresh Start installment agreement, simply select a monthly payment that will pay off your balance due, plus interest, within 24 months or before the IRS’s statute of limitations on collections expires.

How can you figure out the right amount? Use a loan amortization calculator. Enter your balance due, 3 percent for interest, and 24 months for the time period. The calculator will give you the monthly payment. Another trick: make the payment due date about 10 days after the date you plan to pay. That way, if you’re a little later on your payment than you intended, it will still be on time.

The IRS has expanded the streamlined Offer in Compromise (OIC) program to taxpayers with higher income levels ($100,000) and higher balances due ($50,000). The Form 656B booklet that you use to apply for the OIC is new and improved, and it offers a shorter timeframe for the income stream on which your offer is based.

You can apply for these plans yourself, without paying anyone $3,000 to $5,000 to do it for you; just be sure to include all statements and records that the IRS requests, and follow the instructions carefully.

In all cases, make sure you honor your payment agreements or your offers will be voided. Also, keep all copies of your payments and the documents you filed with your applications.

What about if you’ve been paying and you want to make sure your debt is wiped out? How can you be sure it won’t show up again in a few years?

That’s easy. Just send the IRS a Form 4506-T and enter the year (or years) in which you’ve been paying (the form allows you to enter up to 4 years). Check off each box in question 6. You will get a report about the status of your account. If the debt should have been paid off but is not, contact the IRS immediately at 800-829-1040.

You can be your own best advocate. Just step up and do it!

Eva Rosenberg, EA is the publisher of TaxMama.com, where your tax questions are answered. She is the author of several books and ebooks, including Small Business Taxes Made Easy. Eva teaches a tax pro course at IRSExams.com and tax courses you might enjoy athttp://www.cpelink.com/teamtaxmama.