Compromising Compliance? The IRS Offer in Compromise Program and Opportunities for Reform

35 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2016 Last revised: 11 Mar 2016

See all articles by Joseph Dugan

Joseph Dugan

Indiana University Maurer School of Law

Date Written: January 31, 2016


Internal Revenue Code section 7122 provides that “the Secretary may compromise any civil or criminal case arising under the internal revenue laws . . . .” This simple language supplies a statutory hook for the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS’s) “Offer in Compromise” (OIC) program, one of the most important collection alternatives available for taxpayers who dispute an assessed liability or who acknowledge their debt but cannot afford to pay in full. Through the OIC program, the IRS aims to achieve collection at the earliest possible time and at the least cost to the Government while simultaneously creating for the taxpayer an expectation of a fresh start toward future tax compliance.

Unfortunately, public perception may not correspond with the IRS’s goals. A casual Internet search reveals dozens of websites promising to settle tax debts for pennies on the dollar, and “offer mills” across the nation promise a quick, cheap resolution and minimal contact with the IRS — a “get-out-of-jail-free” card without further consequences. To date, the IRS has done relatively little to counter the offer-mill hype or take back the narrative.

This paper argues that, with some careful adjustments, the OIC program could become a powerful compliance mechanism. The key is to treat the OIC process as an opportunity for robust taxpayer education. Drawing on the scholarly literature regarding compliance norms and on sociological research concerning poverty concentration, the paper proposes that an education-driven OIC model could transform taxpayer-offerors into ambassadors who promote norms of tax compliance in low-income communities where traditional IRS messaging has failed. The paper offers a five-part strategy, with a balance of “carrots and sticks,” to achieve this positive compliance outcome.

Keywords: Internal Revenue Service, IRS, tax, offer in compromise, poverty, concentrated poverty, EITC, OIC, Treasury

JEL Classification: K34, K00, K23, E62, H23, H24

Suggested Citation

Dugan, Joseph, Compromising Compliance? The IRS Offer in Compromise Program and Opportunities for Reform (January 31, 2016). Tax Lawyer, 2017 Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Joseph Dugan (Contact Author)

Indiana University Maurer School of Law ( email )

211 S. Indiana Avenue
Bloomington, IN 47405
United States

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