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What to do if you receive a letter from the IRS

Here’s what to do if the IRS contacts you

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Receiving a letter from the Internal Revenue Service can be an unnerving experience, but a letter is not immediately bad news. The IRS can contact you for a number of reasons, and sometimes no further action is required on your part.

Key insights

  • Sometimes an IRS letter is informational only and does not require a response.
  • For letters that need a response, it’s essential to respond in a timely manner to avoid further penalties or legal action.
  • IRS scam letters will sound angry or threatening; real IRS letters are objective in tone.

Why would the IRS send me a letter?

“Some letters are informational only in nature,” said Nicole Rosen, an enrolled agent at Boundless Advisors in Wenatchee, Washington, who has over 17 years of taxation experience. She explained that sometimes the IRS sends a letter to let a taxpayer know a specific action was taken, but it is not asking for a response.

“Lots of people saw those types of letters last year after filing their 2021 tax return notice. They were notice CP12 and a few CP11 notices, and they were what is referred to as math error notices,” she said.

“And in every letter, I saw the IRS was saying the taxpayer claimed too much credit on their return and was reducing the credit. If the taxpayer double-checked their records and agreed with the IRS, they didn't need to do anything. If they disagreed, then they needed to take action.”

» MORE: How to set up a payment plan with IRS

Common reasons for IRS letters

Whatever the letter says, it’s best to open it and read it calmly. Here are some common reasons why the IRS might be contacting you:

  • You owe the IRS money.
  • Your tax return requires corrections.
  • Your tax return is delayed.
  • The IRS has a question about your tax return.
  • Your refund is different from what you previously thought.
  • The IRS needs to verify your identity.

I received a letter from the IRS. Now what?

1. Make sure the letter isn’t a scam

When you get a letter from the IRS, the first thing you need to do is make sure it's not a scam. The IRS never communicates by text, email or social media, so discard any communication that happens through these methods.

Another common sign of an IRS scam is if the tone is angry or threatening or if it demands immediate payment information. Legitimate IRS letters are objective in tone and will give you options to appeal or inquire further.

If you’re unsure whether the letter you received from the IRS is legitimate, call the agency at 800-829-1040. IRS agents will help you determine the source of the letter.

2. Take action

Once you’ve carefully read the letter, it’s time to take action. You may need to respond to the letter by a specific date. Make sure to avoid any penalties and preserve your right to appeal by meeting this deadline. No response is required if the letter doesn’t explicitly ask for a response.

Make sure to do the following if you need to respond:

  • Follow any instructions in the letter.
  • If you owe money, pay it. If you are unable to pay, you can apply for an offer in compromise or online payment agreement.
  • Keep a copy of the letter for your records.
  • If you have any questions, contact the IRS directly or someone who is credentialed, such as an enrolled agent or tax lawyer.

» MORE: How to file back taxes

3. Avoid future IRS letters

The best way to avoid negative letters from the IRS is to file your tax returns accurately and on time. The most common cause for a letter from the IRS is a mistake on your tax return. Reviewing your tax returns carefully before filing can reduce the risk of this.

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    What should I do if I don’t agree with the IRS letter?

    “If you disagree, then read through the letter a second time and find out the time frame for sending a response,” said Rosen of Boundless Advisors. “Make sure you send that response within that time frame. Send it how the IRS asks for it, and if you mail it, send it with tracking.”

    What if I can’t afford additional tax support?

    First, look to see if your tax software or preparer has free audit or post-filing support. If not, Rosen recommends you “look for a low-income taxpayer clinic in your area, as they represent taxpayers before the IRS at no cost to the taxpayer, but you must meet their income criteria.”

    What happens if I ignore a letter from the IRS?

    If you don’t respond or if you respond incorrectly, there is a good chance the IRS will just send a tax bill that includes penalties and interest. It is wise to respond to an IRS letter immediately, with the understanding that it takes a long time on the IRS side to get matters sorted.

    Bottom line

    Receiving a letter from the IRS can be intimidating; however, understanding why it was sent can help put your mind at ease. Knowing how to respond appropriately is essential in order to avoid further issues down the road, such as penalties and interest payments on overdue taxes.

    If you feel overwhelmed by a letter from the IRS, immediately contact a qualified tax professional who can review your case and help guide you through the process.

    ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
    1. IRS, "Avoid scams: Know the facts on how the IRS contacts taxpayers." Accessed March 6, 2023.
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