How to Search for a Federal Tax Lien

By Teo Spengler ; Updated April 03, 2017

If you don't pay your federal taxes, the IRS files a Notice of Federal Tax Lien with the state recorder's office to secure the debt. You can search for a federal tax lien at the recorder's office in the taxpayer's home county and state, or you can use a private company offering online public records searches.

Federal Tax Liens Provide Protection for the IRS

The IRS takes its collection duties seriously and has more ways of securing its debts than the average creditor.

If you fail to pay your federal taxes, the IRS takes immediate action. First, it prepares a tax assessment to determine what you owe. It then forwards a bill to you for this amount. If you don't pay or arrange for a payment plan, the IRS records a federal tax lien in your home state. The lien gives the IRS a protected interest in any real or personal property you own or that you acquire while the lien is in effect. You cannot sell your property without paying your tax debt.

Federal Tax Levies

The IRS uses both tax liens and tax levies to protect and collect past due taxes. These are very different actions.

A tax lien is essentially a legal claim that the IRS makes against your assets. This public document also informs the public that the government has a priority claim on the taxpayer's assets.

A tax levy, on the other hand, involves actually taking property. When it levies on a bank account or a retirement account, the IRS seizes the money to put toward your tax debt. The IRS has the right to seize or levy on funds, securities, personal assets and real property.

Free Federal Tax Lien Search

Because federal tax liens public records, you can find out if the federal government has filed a tax lien against you or your spouse, or anyone else.

In order to fulfill their function of providing public notice of a government's claim on a taxpayer's assets, tax liens must be officially recorded. The IRS records these liens in the taxpayer's home state with the state recorder's office. This office goes by different names in different states, but it is usually the same place you record a property deed.

The state recorder office often provides an online index of recorded documents. For example, in California, federal tax liens are filed with the County Clerk Recorder. The San Francisco Assessor-Recorder's Office has a searchable databank of documents recorded in that county. You can run an online search to verify the existence of a lien. Search by name, document number, type of document, or Assessor’s Parcel Number (APN).

You'll also find various companies offering tax lien searches online. They usually charge fees for this service.

About the Author

Living in France and Northern California, Teo Spengler is an attorney, novelist and writer and has published thousands of articles about travel, gardening, business and law. Spengler holds a Master of Arts in creative writing from San Francisco State University and a Juris Doctor from UC Berkeley. She is currently a candidate for a Master of Fine Arts in fiction.