The Role of Offset in the Collection of Federal Taxes

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Keith Fogg


The legal principle of offset has played a key role in debt collection by private parties for centuries. In 2021, offset continues to play an equally essential role in the United States government’s collection of debts owed to it, accounting for billions of dollars in funds taken from outgoing payments. The right of offset arises when two parties owe each other debts. The party asserting offset can subtract what is owed to them from what they owe, allowing the parties to avoid an unnecessary transaction. Offset thus makes intuitive sense, simplifying two payment flows into one. But offset becomes far more complex when one of the parties is the federal government, which is unlike a traditional private creditor in important ways. Offset has perhaps its largest impact in the tax system, where Congress has legislated that the Internal Revenue Service (the “Service”) has the authority (and sometimes, the mandate) to offset tax refunds. Refunds are commonly offset when a taxpayer owes prior year tax liabilities, other agency debts (e.g., student loans), state taxes or past-due child support. Despite its frequent use by the Service, offset is subject to minimal procedural protections, likely due to its origin in longstanding common law doctrine. Unlike other forms of tax collection, offset does not carry a right to prepayment judicial review in Tax Court. Nor does offset require the Service to issue a notice to the taxpayer prior to taking collection action. Courts also treat offset inconsistently when the applicable taxpayer/debtor is protected by a collection stay under Title 26 or Title 11, allowing offset in some scenarios and denying it in others. Finally, Congress and the Service have often failed to use their authority to make offset more equitable, particularly as applied to low-income taxpayers. The Service has a limited administrative remedy available for taxpayers to affirmatively request bypass from the offset of their refund to a tax debt. But the remedy is little-publicized, little-used and difficult to administer. During the COVID-19 pandemic and recession, Congress legislatively protected advance stimulus payments from some forms of offset. But Congress failed to make that protection expansive or to extend it to conventional tax refunds, both of which would have put needed funds in the hands of millions of taxpayers during an economic crisis. Similarly, the Service declined to exercise its statutory discretion to systemically suspend offset of conventional tax refunds to past tax liabilities. These issues extend to payments of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which are subject to offset. Both Congress and the Service have failed to acknowledge the EITC’s unique nature as a type of public benefit, treating it instead as a conventional tax refund subject to offset. This disproportionately hurts the low-income taxpayers, and their children, that the EITC was enacted to benefit. I argue that policymakers should pay closer attention to offset and make the necessary changes to apply it in a more equitable and logical manner.

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