Many or all companies we feature compensate us. Compensation and editorial
research influence how products appear on a page.
Personal Finance Tax Relief

IRS Fresh Start Program: What It Is & Who Qualifies

High amounts of tax debt can make it difficult to get ahead. However, the IRS offers several options to help, including the Fresh Start program.

The program, launched in 2011, allows you to settle your back tax debts while avoiding severe penalties and consequences. Here’s everything you need to know about the program.

What is the IRS Fresh Start program?

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) launched the Fresh Start program in 2011 as a way to help individuals and small business owners struggling to pay their taxes. It also makes existing programs more accessible. 

Here’s how the program impacts taxpayers. 

  • Higher tax lien threshold: The program increased the threshold at which the IRS issues federal tax liens. Now, the IRS only files tax liens if a taxpayer owes $25,000 or more.
  • More access to payment plans: Fresh Start expanded access to installment agreement plans, which let taxpayers pay off debt over time. Taxpayers with debts up to $50,000 can now qualify. Installment plans go as long as six years.
  • Easier to remove liens: Taxpayers can have liens withdrawn by setting up a payment plan or paying their debt in full if their balance is below $25,000.
  • Offer in Compromise program improvements: This program allows taxpayers to settle their tax debts with a payment less than they owe.

The IRS Fresh Start program has been expanded several times over the years. It recently expanded penalty relief for unpaid taxes to include an additional 4.7 million taxpayers. 

Who qualifies for the IRS Fresh Start Initiative?

The IRS Fresh Start initiative expands existing programs, including the Offer in Compromise program and the Installment Agreement program. Here’s how the programs work.

Installment agreement

Maximum tax debt$50,000 for long-term plan; $100,000 for short-term plan$25,000
Setup fee$0 for short-term plan; $31 to $225 for long-term plan$31 – $225
Tax statusAll tax returns must be currentAll tax returns must be current
Payment detailsDirect debit required on balances over $25,000Direct debit required on balances over $10,000

Installment agreements are payment plans that allow you to pay off your debt over an extended period. For example, imagine you owe $10,000. You might be able to set up an installment agreement to pay off your balance over five years with payments that are less than $200 per month.  

The IRS offers two installment agreements: short-term and long-term. Short-term plans last for 180 days or less. Long-term plans, on the other hand, require monthly payments for multiple years. 

Offer in Compromise

Individual and Business
Maximum tax debtNone
Setup fee$205
Tax statusAll tax returns must be current and estimated tax payments must be made
Payment detailsPay as a lump sum or first payment with offer and remaining balance as monthly payments for six to 24 months

With an Offer in Compromise, you can settle your tax debt for less than you owe. You might want to consider the program if you can’t repay the entire amount or will experience financial hardship if you do. 

To qualify, you must file your tax returns, make estimated tax payments, and have an extension if you’re applying for the current year. Once you reach a compromise, you can repay your adjusted balance as a lump sum or make monthly payments for up to 24 months. 

Benefits & downsides of the Fresh Start Program

The IRS Fresh Start program is a solid option for some taxpayers, but not everyone since you typically have to pay a setup fee and have direct debit payments. 


  • Spread out repayment over time

    You can repay your debt over several months or years, which makes it more manageable. 

  • Large maximums for individuals

    Both programs have high debt maximums, including an unlimited maximum for the Offer in Compromise. The high maximums ensure it’s never too late to repay the debt. 

  • Withdraw your tax lien

    The program makes withdrawing tax liens from your record easier, allowing you to recover faster and move on. 


  • Returns must be current

    You must file your tax returns to qualify for the Fresh Start programs, so they are not a great option for borrowers behind on taxes.

  • Might need to set up direct debit payments

    Many options require direct debit payments, which could be problematic if you’re dealing with financial hardship.

  • Application and setup fees

    The programs have application fees, which can add an extra cost and might make the programs inaccessible for some borrowers. 

How to apply for the Fresh Start Initiative

To apply for an Offer in Compromise or installment plan, you must complete the steps outlined by the IRS. Here’s how the process works.   

Offers in Compromise

  1. Complete the application: You must fill out the IRS Form 656 Booklet
  2. Select a payment plan: You can pay in a lump sum or monthly installments and must decide before applying. 
  3. Application fee and payment: Your application must include the $205 application fee and your initial offer payment. 
  4. Wait for a response: The IRS will review your offer and respond with information about whether it was accepted or rejected. If it’s rejected, you can apply for appeal

Installment plans

  1. Determine your payment plan: You can choose a short-term payment plan that lasts for 180 days or a long-term payment plan that lasts for at least a year. 
  2. Apply for the program: Depending on your chosen plan and how much you owe, you must apply for the mail by submitting Form 9465 or online through the Online Payment Tool Agreement
  3. Pay the application fee: Short-term payment plans do not have application fees, fees for long-term plans range from $35 to $225
  4. Wait for a response: The IRS reviews your application and responds with the next steps. 

You can complete the application process on your own or you can hire a tax relief company to help leverage the Fresh Start program to settle your tax debts. For an idea of where to start, check out our guide to the best tax relief companies.

The Fresh Start Program is user-friendly—if you need assistance, I suggest starting with a knowledgeable and trustworthy friend or family member.

Erin Kinkade


IRS Fresh Start Initiative FAQ

Why did the IRS start the Fresh Start program?

The agency started its Fresh Start initiative to help struggling taxpayers and businesses. It also helps the IRS collect more outstanding balances by making it easier for taxpayers to repay them. 

What is collection potential?

Collection potential is how much the IRS believes you can pay based on your assets. The IRS uses collection potential to determine how much it will accept as an Offer in Compromise.

How is collection potential calculated?

To determine your collection potential, the IRS will examine your assets, including your car, bank accounts, and property. The IRS also considers your future projected income, minus basic living expenses.

How long does the program take?

It often takes at least a few months for the IRS to evaluate an Offer in Compromise. For installment agreements, you will typically know whether your application is approved within a couple of weeks.

Should I apply on my own or call in a pro?

Whether to work with a tax professional is a personal decision. Working with a professional tax relief company may increase your chance of success, but it will also come with a fee. 
Most tax relief companies offer free consultations. A consultation can help determine if it’s the right fit.