Hoping to take a vacation or need to travel outside the United States? If you owe Uncle Sam back taxes, think again.

Americans who owe more than $50,000 in federal tax debt can lose their passports under a new federal law.

In 2015, Congress passed legislation allowing the State Department to revoke or deny passports to those with "seriously delinquent tax debt," according to Philadelphia tax attorneys. In March, the IRS will start implementing the new mandate.

For those (like me) who need legal translation, a "seriously delinquent tax debt" means an unpaid, legally enforceable federal tax liability that has been assessed, is greater than $50,000 (including tax, penalty, and interest), and has a notice of lien with opportunity for administrative remedies either lapsed or denied, or a levy has been made seizing assets, according to Epstein Shapiro &  Epstein, a local law firm.

Michael Gillen, director of the tax accounting group at the law firm Duane Morris, advised those who fall into the $50,000-in-back-taxes camp not to ignore it.

"The IRS will begin advising the State Department of the identities of U.S. citizens with seriously delinquent tax debts within the next 30 days," Gillen said in an interview, noting that the law could affect "hundreds of thousands" of Americans.

Philly's latest candidate for district attorney, Tariq El-Shabazz, owes more than $50,000 in federal taxes, the Inquirer reported last week.  El-Shabazz's tax bills include six IRS liens from 2013 to 2016 for a combined $137,187, the last coming months after he took the job as first deputy district attorney.

The State Department can not only revoke a U.S. passport, but American citizens residing or traveling overseas also may be required to return to the United States until the tax debts are resolved.

There are some exceptions: if you enter into an installment agreement or what's known as an "offer in compromise" with the IRS, or you are granted innocent-spouse relief.

Another way to resolve the bill? Pay it in full. Taxpayers who request a collection due-process hearing to contest the tax liability also can avoid passport revocation, Gillen said.

"I have received dozens of calls this year from taxpayers, as well as from concerned friends, family members, and colleagues who have a loved one in such a situation," he said.

"And many people don't intentionally fail to pay, or they owe and can't pay it yet. They're not running from it," Gillen noted. "But now is the time to resolve your IOUs with the IRS."

Financial Elder Abuse

What are the signs? A new American Institute of Certified Public Accountants report on financial elder abuse spells out what to look for and resources to fight it. A copy of the report is available at the organization's website: AICPA.org.

Although potential financial abuse may be associated with the onset of dementia, if you have any reason to suspect an older person is a victim, contact your local investigative authority. Signs of such abuse include:

  • Unpaid bills.
  • Sudden change in lifestyle.
  • Forged signatures.
  • Sudden accrual of debts, or sale or change in the title of a home, land, or assets.
  • Unexplained transfer of funds.
  • Power of attorney or wills changed under unusual circumstances.
  • Sudden changes in withdrawal amounts.
  • Complaints about missing money or assets.

If financial elder abuse is suspected, Stopfraud.gov, the website of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, recommends that family members or others contact the FBI at 202-324-3000 or at https://tips.fbi.gov.  Also, contact the U.S. Attorney's Office where the person lives or where the fraud was committed.

According to the Government Accountability Office, financial fraud targeting older Americans costs them an estimated $2.9 billion annually. Frauds range from the IRS impersonation scam to the Jamaican Lottery Scam and the prevalent Grandparent Scam. Though all are different in form, they employ threatening and misleading tactics that rob seniors of their hard-earned life savings.

"Personally, I have told my mother and mother-in-law that they are not to give out information to anyone who calls. They simply say their son or daughter handles all their affairs and that they can't come to the phone," said report author Howard Silverstone, director of Forensic Resolutions Inc. and a member of the AICPA Forensic & Litigation Services Committee's Fraud Task Force.