NOTICE OF INTENT TO LEVY
It wasn’t a very nice way to begin a letter, but then, it was from the Internal Revenue Service, and it got Greg’s attention.
The Athens, Georgia, veteran said the notice, which arrived earlier this year, cited three months of taxes he had failed to pay two years ago — and was the first he’d heard of it.
After leaving the military, Greg (Greg asked that his last name be withheld to protect his financial privacy), then 27, had taken a job in information technology. “I guess when I filled out my taxes for 2013 I messed something up, so I didn’t get my private-sector job included into the taxes owed,” he said. Now he was into the Treasury Department for more than $1,700.
The IRS doesn’t keep track of how many millennials incur tax debt, but a survey by personal finance adviser NerdWallet found they are more afraid of filing their taxes than any other generation. Eighty percent of millennials, defined by the survey as 18 to 34 years old, fear they will make a mistake, underpaying or overpaying.
Putting aside outright tax cheats, young workers are financially inexperienced and, increasingly, part of a gig economy — driving for Uber, funding their creative work through Patreon — that requires more care with taxes than some are able, or willing, to take. For example, people who work in contract jobs typically don’t have their taxes withheld automatically and need to set up a program of quarterly estimated tax payments on their own.
Digging their tax trap deeper, fewer than 10 percent of millennials go to the IRS when they have a tax question, and only about a quarter seek help from a tax professional, the survey found, compared with 38 percent of all taxpayers who seek help from a tax pro. Instead, most young people turn to friends and family, a largely unreliable if well-meaning group. Millennial taxpayers in particular bemoan the long wait times on the phone with the IRS and the agency’s weird penchant for mail (like, mail).
“It took at least five hours of your life just getting somebody on the phone,” said Greg, who said he placed four or five calls to the agency seeking to confirm the letter’s validity before signing up for a payment plan on its website. “There needs to be more notification and communication on their part.”
This month, Greg made his first contribution to an IRS tax debt repayment plan, which he said was easy enough to set up. He’ll be making a $150 payment every month until he has repaid the debt. Starting this tax season, he’s working with a certified public accountant.
“Someone facing a tax bill they can’t pay can usually set up a payment agreement,” IRS spokesman Eric Smith said. Indeed, even if the agency isn’t so hot on the phone, it will send multiple letters urging debtors to set up plans before threatening them, if necessary, with levies and liens. Resources are available on the IRS website, agents regularly describe payment plans to those who get through on the phone, and accountants work with the agency to devise plans for their clients.
“If you don’t contact us, we can take action to collect the taxes,” Smith said.
That said, millennials are less likely to own homes than generations before them, so the threat of a property lien doesn’t carry the weight it might, and a change of rental address can cut the letters off altogether. Anthony (Anthony is a pseudonym), a 24-year-old based in Washington, D.C., incurred just over $1,000 of tax debt after he tried to claim an education credit on his 2013 taxes that his parents had already claimed. He sent in a correction of the error but then lost his job and couldn’t pay the balance. When he moved in September of 2014, the letters stopped coming.
“It was an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing,” he said.
In fact, the IRS was nothing compared to the creditors who were after Anthony for his student debt, he said. The following year, what would have been his tax refund was taken to pay off a portion of the outstanding debt. Employed by that time, he was able to pay the balance.