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What to Do If You Missed the Tax Deadline

Apr 16, 2019 3 min read Kate Ashford

Key Takeaways

  • File your taxes or an extension by April 15 to avoid the IRS's late filing penalty.
  • If you're due a refund, you have three years to file and claim it.
  • If you can't pay your tax bill, the IRS has payment plans that can help.


Just after my second daughter was born in late March several years ago, she spent nearly two weeks in the pediatric intensive care unit. In the mayhem — we also had a 2-year-old at home — the idea of completing our taxes by the April 15 deadline became essentially impossible. My husband and I do our taxes ourselves, and because I'm self-employed, those returns are more complicated than some. It simply wasn't going to happen. We filed for an extension.

There are a variety of reasons why you might find yourself missing the April 15 tax target. Maybe you're still waiting for receipts you need for a deduction. Maybe there was a death in the family, or you recently had a major life change like marriage or divorce that affects how you file. Maybe this is your first year as a homeowner.

Whatever the reason, it's not the end of the world if you can't file your complete tax return by April 15. There are procedures in place to help you work it out.


What happens if you miss the tax deadline?

What happens depends on your situation. If you owe taxes and you don't file, you'll be charged both a late filing fee and a late payment fee. The late filing fee is generally 5% for each month or part of a month that a return is late — but no more than 25% in total. The late payment fee is 0.50% of whatever you owe for each month or part of a month that you don't pay your balance.

Of the two fees, the filing penalty is by far the steepest, so it's smart to file by April 15, even if you can't pay what you owe. If you can't file your taxes in full, you can file for an extension, which grants you a six-month extension to file your taxes without paying the late filing penalty.

Note that even with an extension, you still owe money to the IRS on April 15 or you'll be charged a late payment penalty. If you're not sure of the total, give it your best good-faith guess and send that amount to the IRS.



What if you're owed a refund?

If you're due a refund on your taxes, you won't be charged any fees for missing the tax deadline. You have up to three years to file your tax return and claim your refund. (In 2018, the IRS was sitting on $1.1 billion in unclaimed refunds Opens in new window from 2014.)

That said, you may want to file for an extension anyway, even if you think the IRS owes you money. If it turns out that you're wrong and you owe instead, you'll be hit with the 5%-per-month late filing fee as well as the percentage of the amount you owe.


How to file an extension

You'll need to file Form 4868 Opens in new window for a six-month extension on your taxes. Many people will be able to do this via IRS Free File Opens in new window. Businesses and corporations may need to file other forms Opens in new window. Your complete tax return will then be due on October 15.


What if you can't pay what you likely owe?

If you've estimated your tax bill and it's more than you can manage, the IRS offers payment plans Opens in new window that can help. There are fees of $31 to $149 if you're planning to take more than 120 days to pay your balance plus additional fees if you plan to pay by credit card.


What you can do next

If you're nearing December 31 and you're not sure where you stand tax-wise, use the IRS's Withholding Calculator Opens in new window to see if you're getting enough withheld from your paychecks. If you're short, use your last couple of paychecks to put more toward your taxes — or adjust your withholding for the future and start setting aside money in January toward your April tax bill. If you're owed a refund, file early and select to receive your refund via direct deposit; you'll get your taxes out of the way and won't have to worry about filing deadlines.


Please consult your tax and legal advisors for advice pertaining to your particular circumstances.


Kate Ashford is a freelance journalist who writes about personal finance, work and consumer trends. She has written for BBC, Forbes, LearnVest, Money, Real Simple and Parents, among others.



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