What to Do If You Can’t File Your Taxes on Time

4 minute read

With a month to go until tax day, missing the filing deadline may seem like a distant danger. What’s more, this year you have three extra days. Because April 15 falls on a Saturday and Monday, April 17, is a holiday in Washington, D.C., the 2017 filing deadline is April 18.

Still, many Americans go right down to the wire–and past it. In 2016 a quarter of tax returns came in during the first three weeks of April. This year 1040s are trickling in more slowly, possibly because many early filers faced refund delays: until mid-February, the IRS was holding back many of those checks as part of a program to combat the growing problem of tax-identity theft.

Procrastination notwithstanding, finishing on time is a challenge. Tax-filing early birds tend to have simple returns and refunds on the way; taxpayers with more complex returns and a looming tax bill typically bring up the rear. The IRS estimates that filers using a 1040 rather than the simpler 1040A or 1040EZ spend 15 hours on their taxes, including seven hours on record keeping.

As tax day draws near and your odds of filing on time grow slimmer, here’s what to do.

Buy yourself more time

Get an automatic six-month extension by filing a Form 4868 by mail or electronically. You can submit one online for free via the IRS’s Free File program (irs.gov/freefile) even if you earn too much to qualify for free tax help (income of $64,000 or less).

“There’s a stigma around getting an extension, but there shouldn’t be,” says Martinsville, N.J., CPA Gail Rosen. “It’s better to get one than to file and amend later.” Not only will you have more time to get the details right, but this simple step will save you from a costly failure-to-file penalty of 5% of your unpaid taxes per month, up to a max of 25%.

Be sure to search out missing reports and take steps to get them in hand

By March, employers, brokerages, banks and lenders should have mailed W-2s, 1099s, 1098s and other forms. “If you haven’t gotten them by now, it’s time to contact the issuer and request a new copy,” says Cari Weston, director of tax practice and ethics for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. You can probably fetch bank and brokerage forms online, and with your employer ID number on hand you may be able to download an errant W-2.

Don’t move ahead with faulty or missing documents

The reporting forms for partnership income, for example, are routinely late. “Take the extension if you need a W-2 or 1099 corrected,” says Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

You could skip an extension if you’re sure of a refund–penalties are based on what you owe–but file for one anyway. If the IRS never hears from you, notes Lisa Greene-Lewis, a CPA with TurboTax, the agency may send you a notice of taxes due based on what it thinks you should pay.

Know what can’t wait

Even with an extension, you must pay what you owe by April 18 to avoid interest (currently 4%) and a late-payment penalty of 0.5% of your unpaid taxes per month, up to a max of 25%. If you’re short on funds, send what you can. Once you do file, you can apply for an online payment agreement from the IRS as long as you owe $50,000 or less. If you can pay within 120 days, you automatically qualify for a no-fee, short-term plan.

Also, this is your last chance to make key tax-saving moves. You have until April 18–not the Oct. 16 extension deadline–to put up to $5,500 in an individual retirement account for 2016 ($6,500 if you’re 50 or older). If you had a high-deductible health plan in 2016, you have until April 18 to top off a tax-free health savings account. Singles can put in $3,350; families $6,750.

Small-business owners, though, can fund a 2016 SEP-IRA right up to the extension deadline, so grab that option if you need more time to fully fund your 2016 plan.

Finally, by late March or early April, you’re running short on time for finding an accountant to take on your return. Again, better to file for an extension. “You don’t want to be in a rush finding a preparer,” says Weston, “and you don’t want a preparer to rush your return.”

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Write to Ellen Stark at ellen_stark@moneymail.com