If you have a big tax bill that you can’t pay, life can seem pretty bleak

While the number of tax liens annually filed by the IRS against taxpayers has fallen by more than 50 percent since 2010, there were more than 14 million open tax-debt cases against individuals and businesses heading into 2018, according to the IRS data book.

Despite one of the longest-running economic expansions on record over the last decade, millions of Americans continue to struggle to pay their taxes.

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If you’re in that boat, however, it is not the end of the world. There are steps you can take to reduce the impact of unpaid taxes on your life, credit and financial well-being. Here are five tips to lessen that burden.

Tip 1: Don’t ignore the problem. The IRS will not. Even if you can’t pay what you owe, file your return on time or, if that’s not possible, file for an extension. The late filing penalty is 5 percent of the tax owed per month up to a maximum of 25 percent of the balance. There is also an underpayment penalty of 0.5 percent to 1 percent per month of the balance owed, also up to 25 percent. If you don’t file your return or make any payment on your obligation, your tax debt will grow rapidly.

Tip 2: Be realistic about your situation. The IRS rarely forgives tax debts. Form 656 is the application for an “offer in compromise” to settle your tax liability for less than what you owe. Such deals are only given to people experiencing true financial hardship. If you or your family have had catastrophic health-care expenses or you’ve lost your job and have poor prospects for generating income in the future, you may qualify. It doesn’t happen often.

You can greatly enhance your chance of a settlement by using an experienced tax attorney or enrolled agent. These tax professionals know exactly how to present your case and how best to negotiate with an IRS examiner.

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“Tax forgiveness is intended for people truly struggling with a tax burden,” said Michael McKeon , CEO of SoNerdly, a financial services comparison website for consumers

Tip 3: Owe less than $7,000? Handle it yourself. How big is the balance? If it’s less than $7,000, you’re probably capable of handling the matter yourself rather than paying someone to help you deal with the IRS. Form 9465, the IRS application for an installment payment plan, can be filed online. The plans typically allow you to pay off the balance owed plus penalties and interest over a 36-month period.

With anything larger, it may be worth to hire a professional.

Tip 4: Owe more than $7,000? Hire an attorney. If you owe more than $7,000, consider hiring a tax attorney to negotiate with the IRS. Payment plans differ, and an experienced attorney can help you get better terms. They can also help you avoid having a tax lien being assessed against you, which will damage your credit.

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Be careful whom you hire, however. State attorneys general warn consumers regularly about tax-debt resolution scams. Make sure you are working with an actual tax attorney or enrolled agent.

Consult a resource such as the SoNerdly website, which allows consumers to compare the offers, rates and fees of tax-relief companies and provides some background on firms’ experience and things like the number of licensed attorneys on staff.

“Knowing many of these attorneys, they can provide a lot of value,” said McKeon, who formerly worked for TaxRise, a major company in the industry. “But people have to do their research and explore their options.”

A big tax bill can feel like a financially and emotionally crushing burden. There is only one way to deal with it: Face the situation honestly, and develop a budget you can handle to pay it off.

“If you have a tax liability you can’t afford to pay, don’t avoid the issue,” said McKeon. “You can work with the IRS to deal with it.”

Greg Tanner

Greg Tanner is a retirement, investing and tax planning expert who has been writing about personal finance for a decade. His expertise in the finance niche also extends to home buying, credit cards, banking and small business. He’s worked directly with several major financial and insurance brands, including Citibank, Discover and AIG. Greg is a graduate of the Texas A&M University. Originally from central Virginia, he now lives on the North Carolina coast along with his three children.