The Internal Revenue Service is expanding its “Fresh Start” initiative to help more unemployed and financially stressed taxpayers with installment agreements and relief from failure-to-file penalties.

Under the new Fresh Start provisions, which expanded on an effort that the IRS began in 2008, certain taxpayers who have been unemployed for 30 days or longer will be able to avoid failure-to-pay penalties. In addition, the IRS said Wednesday it is doubling the dollar threshold for taxpayers eligible for installment agreements to help more people qualify for the program.

“We have an obligation to work with taxpayers who are struggling to make ends meet," said IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman in a statement. ”This new approach makes sense for taxpayers and for the nation’s tax system, and it’s part of a wider effort we have underway to help struggling taxpayers."

To assist those taxpayers who are most in need, the IRS will grant a six-month grace period on failure-to-pay penalties to certain wage earners and self-employed individuals. However, the request for an extension of time to pay will result in relief from the failure-to-pay penalty for tax year 2011 only if the tax, interest and any other penalties are fully paid by Oct. 15, 2012.

The penalty relief will be available to two taxpayer categories: wage earners who have been unemployed at least 30 consecutive days during 2011 or in 2012 up to the April 17 deadline for filing a federal tax return this year; and self-employed individuals who experienced a 25 percent or greater reduction in business income in 2011 due to the economy.

The penalty relief is also subject to certain income limits. A taxpayer’s income must not exceed $200,000 if he or she files as married filing jointly, or not exceed $100,000 if he or she files as single or head of household. The penalty relief is also restricted to taxpayers whose calendar year 2011 balance due does not exceed $50,000.

Taxpayers who meet those eligibility criteria will need to complete a new Form 1127A to seek the 2011 penalty relief. The new form is available on IRS.gov/form1127.

The failure-to-pay penalty is generally half of 1 percent per month, with an upper limit of 25 percent. Under the newly expanded Fresh Start relief, taxpayers can avoid that penalty until Oct. 15, 2012, which is six months beyond this year’s filing deadline. However, the IRS noted that it is still legally required to charge interest on unpaid back taxes and does not have the authority to waive this charge, which is currently 3 percent on an annual basis.

Even with the new penalty relief becoming available, the IRS is strongly encouraging taxpayers to file their returns on time by April 17 or file for an extension. Failure-to-file penalties applied to unpaid taxes remain in effect and are generally 5 percent per month, with a 25 percent cap.

Installment Agreements
The new Fresh Start provisions will also provide more taxpayers with the ability to use streamlined installment agreements to catch up on their back taxes.

Effective immediately, the new threshold for using an installment agreement without having to supply the IRS with a financial statement has increased from $25,000 to $50,000, to reduce taxpayer burden.

Taxpayers who owe up to $50,000 in back taxes will now be able to enter into a streamlined agreement with the IRS to stretch out the payment over a series of months or years. The maximum term for streamlined installment agreements has also been raised to 72 months from the current 60-month maximum.

Taxpayers who are seeking installment agreements of over $50,000 will still need to supply the IRS with a Collection Information Statement (Form 433-A or Form 433-F). Taxpayers may also pay down their balance due to $50,000 or less to take advantage of this payment option.

An installment agreement is an option for those who cannot pay their entire tax bills by the due date. While the penalties are reduced, interest continues to accrue on the outstanding balance. To qualify for the new expanded streamlined installment agreement, a taxpayer must agree to monthly direct debit payments.

Taxpayers can set up an installment agreement with the IRS by going to the On-line Payment Agreement page on IRS.gov and following the instructions.

These changes supplement a number of efforts to help struggling taxpayers, including the “Fresh Start” program announced last year. Input from the Internal Revenue Service Advisory Council and the IRS National Taxpayer Advocate’s office contributed to the formulation of the Fresh Start program. The initiative includes a variety of changes to help individuals and businesses pay back taxes more easily and with less burden, including the issuance of fewer tax liens.

“Our goal is to help people meet their obligations and get back on their feet financially,” said Shulman.

Offers in Compromise
Under the first round of Fresh Start last year, the IRS expanded a new streamlined Offer in Compromise program to cover a larger group of struggling taxpayers. An offer-in-compromise is an agreement between a taxpayer and the IRS that settles the taxpayer’s tax liabilities for less than the full amount owed.

The IRS said it recognizes that many taxpayers are still struggling to pay their bills so the agency has been working to put in place more common-sense changes to the OIC program to more closely reflect real-world situations. For example, the IRS now has more flexibility with financial analysis for determining reasonable collection potential for distressed taxpayers.

Generally, an offer will not be accepted if the IRS believes that the liability can be paid in full as a lump sum or through a payment agreement. The IRS noted that it examines the taxpayer’s income and assets to make a determination regarding the taxpayer’s ability to pay.

A series of eight short videos are available to familiarize taxpayers and practitioners with the IRS collection process. The series “Owe Taxes? Understanding IRS Collection Efforts”, is available on the IRS Web site.