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  • Nick Burgess

Understanding IRS Tax Topic 151: Your Right to Appeal and What It Means for Your Refund

The following article is for entertainment and educational purposes only, and should not be considered financial advice. Please contact a licensed financial professional for individualized advice. Some links below may be affiliate links that generate a small commission at no cost to you.


The American tax code is a bitch. Just a Grade-A, hates-your-mom-but-she's-kind-of-freaky kind of total bitch, with facets and backstories that you didn't know she had, or even wanted to know. But every April, the American tradition of pressing "FILE" in TurboTax and crossing your fingers that the number on the other side is a positive refund, as opposed to a negative balance, gets into full swing. But what happens if you did everything correctly, filed your taxes on time and didn't get the refund you thought you would get? Today, we'll delve into IRS Tax Topic 151, a critical piece of information for any tax filers who encounter it.

a person filling out a tax form

What Is IRS Tax Topic 151?

The good news is that, unlike some other IRS codes, Tax Topic 151 isn't an error code nor a sign of identity theft. The bad news, however, is that it signifies the IRS's intent to offset your tax refund. In simpler terms, this means a reduction of your federal tax refund in lieu of a full tax refund. And the most common reasons behind this? Outstanding debts.

In fact, this tax refund offset could be due to a plethora of different things, such as unpaid taxes from last year, unpaid child support payments, federal student loans in default, or debt to other federal agencies. It's like the Department of Treasury's way of saying, "We need to take some of your refund to pay off your government debt."

When this happens, your first letter from the IRS, along with a generic reference code on your IRS transcript, will inform you of their plan. This isn't the final step, though. You'll also receive a second letter from the Department of Treasury's Bureau of the Fiscal Service (BFS) providing additional information about your offset, including transaction codes for further review.

Now, don't panic! You're not alone in this, and there's a system in place to ensure fairness. This is where IRS Tax Topic 151 comes into play. It concerns your appeal rights - your right to challenge the IRS's decision.

How Can You Challenge Topic 151?

First and foremost, if you think the IRS made a mistake or used incorrect information, it's time to stand up for yourself. One option is to contact the BFS or the agency you owe money to and provide additional documentation to dispute the claim. Be sure to include your birth certificate or other proofs if you suspect identity theft.

Alternatively, and often more effectively, you can file a formal written protest or a small case request to the Independent Office of Appeals, the IRS’s independent review system for tax disputes. This part of the process, known as the administrative appeals process, is an informal administrative process where you don't have to deal with the complicated court system. However, it's a good idea to seek help from tax professionals or tax attorneys who can help navigate this intricate process.

If your appeal is accepted, you'll usually attend an appeals conference - either virtually, over the phone, or at a local appeals office. This conference can also involve your tax professional or attorney. They'll discuss the IRS agent's proposed adjustment to your refund amount, and you'll have a chance to present your case.

If this process doesn't work out, and the IRS maintains its position, you still have options. You can either pay the debt (which could involve setting up a payment plan for back taxes) and then sue for a refund in a U.S. District Court or the Federal Claims Court. Alternatively, you can bypass payment and directly petition the U.S. Tax Court.

Keep in mind, if your refund is larger than your debt, you'll receive a partial refund. So, not all is lost! For instance, if you're due a $3,000 refund but owe $1,000 in unpaid taxes, you'll still receive a $2,000 refund.

To check the status of your tax refund, use the IRS Refund Status Tool. However, please note, if you filed a paper return instead of direct deposit, it could take several business days longer. Also, if your financial institution rejects the deposit—for various reasons—they'll issue you a paper check instead.

Despite the numerous reasons for a tax offset, a lot of the time, it boils down to unpaid taxes. The IRS doesn't forget, even if you do! Make sure to assess your tax situation every year to avoid unwanted surprises during tax season.


It's a lot to digest, I know. But remember: the key to resolving tax disputes is taking action. Whether it's double-checking your IRS letter or seeking help from a tax professional, be proactive in understanding your tax liability and next steps.

In conclusion, although getting a Tax Topic 151 message can seem daunting, knowing your appeal rights and having a clear understanding of the process can go a long way. And remember, there's always help available - from the IRS itself to tax professionals ready to step in and guide you.


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