Under a law passed by Congress in 2015, the Department of State is required to deny an individual’s passport application and is authorized to revoke or limit an existing passport if the IRS has certified the individual as having a seriously delinquent federal tax debt (i.e., a federal tax debt exceeding $50,000, adjusted annually for inflation, including assessed interest and penalties). The right to travel internationally is a fundamental right of citizenship, and it should not be restricted unless and until a U.S. citizen has been given adequate advance notice that his or her passport may be denied or revoked and an opportunity to resolve the debt or challenge the IRS’s position. Yet under current procedures, the IRS sends the only stand-alone notice to the U.S. citizen regarding explaining the passport consequences of the debt at the same time it certifies the debt as seriously delinquent, depriving the U.S. citizen of the opportunity to be heard before the certification is made.
The IRS has also refused to hold off on certifying cases in which a U.S. citizen is actively working with the Taxpayer Advocate Service to try to resolve the debt. In addition, the IRS notice does not include information that would be helpful for U.S. citizens who may have been victims of identity theft or who may be unable to afford to pay their debts and may qualify for currently not collectible status, both of which may result in decertification. Moreover, neither the IRS’s notice nor the Department of State’s letter includes information about a statutory exception for U.S. citizens with an emergency need or humanitarian reason to travel.
While Congress enacted this law to penalize U.S. citizens who do not resolve their tax debts and to induce them to do so, it did not intend to abridge otherwise applicable U.S. Citizen rights. The National Taxpayer Advocate makes several recommendations to ensure U.S. citizens receive adequate advance notice and an opportunity to be heard, including that the IRS send a stand-alone notice to all U.S. citizens at least 30 days prior to certifying their seriously delinquent tax debts (90 days when addressed to a U.S. citizen outside the United States), which describes the consequences of certification and outlines all options available to the U.S. Citizen to avoid or reverse a certification. The dilemma and/or hardship with this procedure is that many U.S. citizens living and working overseas reside in hardship areas where mail is unreliable or forwarding of mail from one foreign location to another will take months.