Tax Day is today.
The 2021 tax season has been tumultuous from the start — as the IRS’ huge backlog of unprocessed returns contributed to further delays, and changes to the tax code and reconciling new credits left many taxpayers uncertain about how to file accurately.
This year, the federal tax filing deadline falls on April 18, which leaves only a few days to file if you haven’t already. With the clock winding down, experts say people who haven’t yet filed have two options — file ASAP or file an extension.
Like any year, filing this late in the season can be difficult, especially if you’re counting on help from a tax professional. And if you’re filing an extension, remember that the extension only applies to filing your return — if you expect to owe taxes, you’ll still need to submit an estimated payment by April 18.
Here’s what you need to know ahead of the tax filing deadline, and a few tips from experts to help you prepare for April 18:
What to Do if You Haven’t Filed Yet
File Online ASAP
The tax deadline is approaching, but you do still have a few days to submit your federal tax return.
Earlier this tax season, experts predicted that many taxpayers could expect tax filing delays due to more complex returns accounting for 2021’s advance Child Tax Credit payments, stimulus payments, and other pandemic-related tax changes. Some taxpayers may still be waiting to receive the forms to help them reconcile those payments or even their 2020 tax return from the IRS backlog.
But experts say if you have the majority of the information necessary to file, it’s best to simply go ahead with what you know. You may also be able to get missing data from your tax transcript using the IRS online account tool.
“If there’s uncertainty around items like the Child Tax Credit, I would probably go ahead and file,” says Rob Cordasco, CPA and president of Cordasco & Company, P.C. in Savannah, Georgia. The IRS can still reconcile payments when your return is processed.
The busy final stretch of tax season means it’ll likely be difficult to find a tax pro. “It’s going to be really hard to find a good tax preparer who will take you on at this point, unless you’re already on an extension,” says Cagan.
And price is another consideration. Most tax professionals and self-filing services offer discounts during the relatively slow time of tax season, says Mark Steber, chief tax information officer for Jackson Hewitt. But this week, some may charge more for the last-minute time crunch, such as a “rush fee” to meet the April 18 deadline.
Watch Out for Tax Filing Scams
Beware of scammers that may try to take advantage of your rush in exchange for your information or money. If you are offered a discount or deal that’s too good to be true, chances are it is.
Some scammers may try to charge more depending on how much your tax refund is, Steber adds. Start by asking for an estimated cost upfront, even though the final price may depend on your tax return. If you need more time to find a reputable tax professional, it’s best to file an extension to give yourself more time to review previous tax returns and documents instead of rushing to file.
Also remember to have your tax professional sign your tax return before submitting it. “That’s a requirement under the law,” Steber says. If a tax preparer is not willing to sign your return before submitting it, it could be a red flag to have your tax return reviewed and submitted by someone else.
File for an Extension
If you’re really unsure about your ability to complete your return, filing for an extension will give you more time to find a tax professional and file your return accurately. You’ll still need to pay your estimated taxes owed by April 18, but you’ll have until Oct. 17 to file your completed return.
To best estimate your taxes owed, you can use the IRS tax calculator to help determine how much you owe in total, and subtract what you’ve already paid. Last year’s tax return, and any documents you already have from this year, including your W-2 or 1099s, can be useful to make an accurate estimate.
“If there’s anything you’re unsure about, any paperwork you may be missing, or if you have any doubts about filing a return, file an extension and give yourself the extra time,” Michele Cagan, CPA, founder of Single Mom CPA and author of “Debt 101.”
Filing an extension could also be the best option even if you’ve found a tax pro to work with, but it’s someone new. “It will be best if you file an extension and give the new accountant extra time to study what you have from the previous years,” says Tony Chan, CFP at Crossroads Planning, LLC in Orange, California.
With all the tax changes and confusion, filing accurately can make a big difference this year in avoiding delays and penalties, even if it means waiting a bit longer to complete your return. “Even though you may be due for a refund, I’d still file the extension just because if something changed on your return or if you think you’re getting a credit, but you’re not, the penalty will be much heavier for not filing the extension,” says Chan.
When you file an extension, make sure you have proof that you filed the extension by April 18, says Cordasco. For instance, if you mail your extension, send it by certified mail and keep a receipt of when it was postmarked. Anyone can also e-file for an extension for free using the IRS Free File program.
Don’t forget your state tax return, too: Check your state’s tax website for information about when your state tax return is due date and guidelines for filing a state-based extension if you need to.
Take Action to Avoid Penalties
Most importantly, avoid taking no action at all before the April 18 deadline.
If you don’t file your return by Tax Day and don’t file an extension, you’ll risk missing out on your tax refund if you’re owed one, and could pay both interest on unpaid balances and penalties for failure to pay or file.
If you don’t pay your estimated taxes due (even if you file an extension) you’ll take on a penalty equal to 0.5% of taxes owed after Tax Day for each month the tax isn’t paid, up to 25%.
“If you know that you could owe a huge balance, that 0.5% could add up really quick,” says Chan.
Even if you can’t pay all the taxes you owe right now, look into short- and long-term payment plans the IRS offers. You may qualify to enroll in a plan to pay your taxes over time. Though these plans may still charge interest, they won’t be as costly as the mounting non-payment penalties you could face otherwise.