The April 15 tax deadline (or April 17, for those who live in Maine or Massachusetts) is fast-approaching, which means the pressure to file your returns and pay your taxes is officially on. If your tax returns are relatively straight-forward and you have everything you need, it’s a good idea to buckle down and check this off your to-do list. But if you’re dealing with more complicated returns (perhaps due to being a freelancer, forming a small business or claiming many dependents and deductions) or don’t have all of the necessary paperwork, it may be worth it to request an extension rather than rush through the process.
“For some Americans, filing after April can be necessary to ensure the accuracy of their returns,” said Jackie Perlman, principal tax research analyst at The Tax Institute at H&R Block. “A filing extension allows both individual taxpayers and businesses that are unable to file a tax return by the due date to file the return at a later date, generally six months after the original due date.” So, if you get an extension, you’ll have until October 15 of the same year to file your tax return. Here’s what you should know about doing so:
Everyone is eligible for an extension
You don’t have to make a big case in order to get an extension; if you want (or need) one, it’s up for the taking. “You can obtain a tax extension for any reason,” Perlman said. “The IRS grants them automatically as long as you complete the proper form on time.” Just make sure, she noted, to check your state’s tax laws as well — “some states accept IRS extensions, while others require you to file a separate state extension form,” she said.
While anyone can get an extension, though, not everyone may need to. According to the IRS, if you’re a U.S. citizen or resident who lives outside of the country (and your main place of work is also outside the country) or you’re on military duty outside of the country, you get an extension automatically. That said, it’s not quite the same: In this case, you only get an extra two months to both file and pay your taxes — and you’ll still be charged interest on any payments made after the April 15 deadline, even with this extension.
You might also be eligible for an automatic extension if you were impacted by a natural disaster. If that’s the case, you can find more details about the available tax relief on the IRS website.
An extension can help you avoid significant penalties
If you file your tax return late without getting an extension, expect to pay. The standard late-filing penalty is 5 percent of the amount you owe for every month or partial month your return is late, up to a maximum of 25 percent. If you file more than 60 days late, the minimum penalty is the lesser of $210 or the full amount due on your return.
And if you’re unable to pay the taxes you owe by April 15, you’re still better off filing your return or getting an official extension versus just waiting until you do have the funds and filing late. “The penalty for not filing a tax return is potentially 10 times greater than the penalty for not paying in full,” Perlman said, noting the failure-to-pay penalty is only .5 percent of the amount you owe for every month or partial month, up to a 25 percent maximum. “Even if a taxpayer isn’t able to pay the taxes due and is not eligible for an IRS relief option, filing a tax return or extension before the deadline can help limit how much ultimately must be paid in penalties and interest,” she said.
You still have to pay your taxes in April
That said, even if you do get an extension, you’re still on the hook to pay your taxes in April. “An extension to file is not an extension to pay any taxes you owe,” Perlman said. “To avoid both late filing and late payment penalties, you will need to file a timely extension and estimate what you owe and pay at least  percent of that amount by April 15.” If you pay that 85 percent on time, the IRS will waive the late-payment penalty for the remaining amount you owe. Otherwise, you’ll be charged extra for every month you go without paying your taxes.
“If you can’t pay your balance due all at once, you can request a short-term extension to pay, enter into an installment agreement with the IRS, request a hardship extension, or even pay with a credit card,” Perlman said. Keep in mind, though, that while the IRS’s alternate payment plans can help you avoid a tax lien or collections, they do still come with interest and, in some cases, additional fees.
Filing for an extension is pretty simple
Filing your actual tax returns can be confusing and time consuming, but requesting an extension is actually pretty easy and straightforward. There are three ways to do it: Complete form 4868 and mail it in (along with your tax payment) to the address indicated on the document; e-file online for free or ask the person handling your tax preparation to do so on your behalf; or head to the IRS website and pay all or part of your estimated tax due. In the latter case, if you pay online and indicate your payment is for an extension, you’ll get it automatically without having to complete the form. Regardless of the method, you have until April 15 to make your request.
While an extension may make sense in some cases, “if you have all the documents you need to prepare an accurate return, there’s no reason to wait to file,” Perlman said. “If you’re due a refund, there’s no benefit in waiting to get your money. And if you’re worried you’ll owe, you can work out a payment plan with the IRS.”