Back in the spring, millions of Americans asked for and received six additional months to file their federal income tax returns.
Now, the extension is almost up. The new deadline is Tuesday.
“Time is running out,” said Lance Christensen, a tax partner at Margolin, Winer & Evens in Garden City, New York. “They have to file.”
A record 15 million people — about 1 in 10 filers — received automatic, six-month filing extensions for their 2018 returns, according to the IRS. (That was up from 14.7 million the year before.) Sweeping changes to the tax code under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 were behind the torrent of extensions, according to tax professionals and the IRS.
Missing the extended deadline could mean penalties from the IRS for failing to file and — if the filer still owes taxes — failure to pay. The extension allowed an extra six months to file a return but no extra time to pay. (Late filers are supposed to estimate what they owe and pay by the original April deadline.) So penalties may already be accruing for those who haven’t paid, and will grow if the October deadline is missed, too.
If someone owes taxes but doesn’t have the money to pay the full balance, it’s still best to file a return, Christensen said. People are often reluctant to call the IRS, but it’s better to initiate communication with the agency and discuss your circumstances, he said. Contact the IRS, explain your situation and seek an agreement to pay the bill over time, he said. That way, you’ll avoid late-filing penalties.
“You’re better off filing,” he said, “ even if you can’t pay.”
The penalty for filing late is 5% of the tax that is owed, for each month (or partial month) the payment is late. The failure-to-pay penalty is 0.5% of the amount unpaid, also charged monthly. (Penalties are capped at 25% of the tax owed.)
The IRS is often willing to waive penalties for those filing or paying late for the first time, said Shannon Hudson, a certified public accountant and partner at Altair Group in Bedford, New Hampshire. An abatement is not guaranteed, she said, but if you have a good track record, “more often than not, they’ll abate it.”
The good news is that if you’re due a refund, you won’t owe any penalties. But if you are owed money, it’s best to file a return and collect it, Hudson said, because there is a window of three years for collecting a refund. So anyone who is due money should file as soon as possible. The average refund is more than $2,700, the IRS said.
If your refund is much larger (or smaller) than expected, it may be a good idea to check how much is withheld from your paycheck each pay period. You can increase or decrease your withholding by filing a new Form W-4 with your employer. The IRS W-4 online withholding estimator can help you fill out the form.
The IRS grants limited exceptions to the October deadline — for example, taxpayers in federally declared disaster areas may get more time to file. A list of affected areas is available on the IRS website.
Here are some questions and answers about the extended filing deadline:
Q: If I’m due a tax refund, how long will it take to arrive?
A: Most refunds are issued within 21 days after the return is accepted, the IRS said. Filing your return electronically and choosing direct deposit of your refund helps speed things along. You can check the status of your refund online or with an IRS mobile app.
Q: What if I need help filing my return, but I don’t have the money to pay a professional?
A: A few free tax preparation sites, including those run by the IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, remain open through October. At the sites, IRS-trained volunteers help people — generally, those making $56,000 or less — prepare their returns. You can search online by ZIP code for a location near you. Be sure to call first, to confirm that the site is operating. (Note that tax help locations operated by the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program are closed until January.)
If you must file yourself, no-cost filing options are available on the IRS Free File website through Tuesday.
Q: Is there any way to reduce my 2018 tax bill at this point?
A: If you are self-employed or own a small business, you may be able to fund an individual retirement account known as a “simplified employee pension,” or SEP IRA, and deduct the amount you contributed from your taxable income, Hudson said. The deadline for SEP contributions, if you received a filing extension, is Tuesday. If you qualify, you can contribute as much as 25% of your net earnings, up to a limit of $55,000, for 2018.