This year, your federal income tax return was due on Tuesday, April 17. That's because the usual deadline, April 15, fell on a Sunday, and a federal holiday, Emancipation Day, fell on April 16. If you didn't file your return on time despite the extra two days, here's what to expect.
Interest and Penalties
When you file and pay your taxes late, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will charge you interest, compounded daily, on your unpaid tax. Interest accrues from the April 17 deadline until the date when you actually pay. The IRS's annual interest rate on late payments is the federal short-term rate (currently 0%) plus 3%. The rate changes quarterly; taxpayers can find current rates at the IRS's news release web page.
In addition to interest, you'll be responsible for a late payment penalty of 0.5% plus a late filing penalty of 4.5%. Both penalties are charged on the amount of tax you owe for each month or partial month that you don't pay your tax bill. The penalty maxes out at 47.5% - that's 22.5% for filing late and 25% for paying late. The late filing penalty increases to 15% per month with a maximum of 75% for fraudulent failure to file.
The IRS will reduce or even eliminate the late filing and payment penalties if you can show "reasonable cause," but the IRS may not interpret those words in the same way you would. Also, members of the armed forces who are currently serving in combat zones may qualify for an exception to the filing and payment deadlines. So will some taxpayers affected by recent natural disasters.
The good news is that you don't have to worry about going to jail for filing or paying late or for making a mistake on your return. The IRS says it reserves criminal prosecution for "flagrant cases involving criminal violations of tax laws."
If you don't file a return, the IRS may prepare a return for you using the information it has about your income from W2s, 1099s and other forms it collects from third parties like your employer and financial institutions. An IRS-prepared return is unlikely to give you credit for all the deductions and exemptions you're allowed, so an IRS-prepared return (also called a substitute return) is likely to result in your owing more tax than you were actually required to pay. If the IRS does file a substitute return, you'll have the opportunity to correct it and receive the exemptions, credits and deductions you're owed if you file your own return.
If you intentionally don't pay your taxes or make any effort to pay them, the IRS can force you to pay them. It can levy your bank accounts, garnish your wages and/or seize your assets. It can also file liens against your assets, including your home. If you aren't intentionally evading your tax liability but you can't pay, your best bet is to file on time and work out a repayment plan with the IRS. Under such a plan, the IRS may lower your late payment penalty to 0.25% per month, and you won't owe the late filing penalty of 4.5% per month.
What Is Considered on Time?
If you file your tax return electronically, your return transmission will have an electronic postmark. This electronic postmark determines whether you filed on time.
The IRS considers paper returns to be filed on time if they are "mailed in an envelope that is properly addressed, has enough postage and is postmarked by the due date." If you use a private delivery service such as DHL, UPS or FedEx to send your tax return, the postmark date is considered to be "the date the private delivery service records in its database or marks on the mailing label."
Tax Return Extensions
If you need more time to prepare your return, filing an automatic extension request is simple and straightforward. Filing form 4868 gives you an extra six months to prepare your return. Be aware that if you file an automatic extension, your filing deadline becomes October 15, not October 17. This extension does not, however, extend the amount of time you have to pay any tax you owe.
If you need more time to pay and you owe $50,000 or less in combined taxes, penalties and interest, try using the IRS's online payment agreement to automatically set up a payment plan. You can do this even before you receive any notices from the IRS. Another option is to request a payment agreement by filing form 9465-FS. If you're having trouble paying your taxes because you lost your job or your self-employment income has declined by 25% or more, you might qualify for penalty relief and a six-month payment extension under the IRS's Fresh Start program.
The Bottom Line
In the future, if you know you won't be able to file your return on time, file an automatic extension using form 4868. You can do this online through the Free File link at IRS.gov, through a tax software program or through a professional tax preparer. The form asks you to estimate your tax liability and pay what you think you will owe. Even if your estimate turns out to be incorrect, it could reduce any late payment penalties you might owe, and you won't be subject to late filing penalties.