Good morning! Welcome to the Last Day.
That's right. Today is the last day for you to file your income tax return. (You got two extra days past April 15 this year because of a special Monday holiday.) If you've labored through the past several days with no success, you may be wondering what you can do if you don't think you'll make the deadline.
Well, put IRS Form 4868 (link opens a PDF file) on your to-do list for today.
If properly completed, Form 4868 ("Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return") will allow you an automatic six-month extension -- until Oct. 15. (This date can vary slightly if it falls on a weekend or holiday.) But there are some strings attached.
To pay or not to pay
If you've already determined that you'll receive a refund from Uncle Sam when you finally file your tax return, then you've got it made. Uncle Sam doesn't mind holding your refund (without paying you any interest) for an additional few months while you get your "stuff" together. Simply file Form 4868 before the post office closes today. Easy as that.
But what if you owe money? Form 4868 extends the time to file your return -- but not the time to pay your taxes. The IRS might claim that the extension won't be valid unless you make full payment with Form 4868, but that's not exactly the whole truth.
Before 1993, the official IRS position was, "No payment, no extension." In 1993, Uncle Sam decided to accept Form 4868 as valid, even if you can't pay all (or any) of the tax due as shown on the extension. However, to receive a valid extension without payment, Form 4868 must reflect a "proper estimate" of your tax liability. Simply filing Form 4868 without a reasonable attempt to determine your "proper estimate" of tax liability might cause additional penalties. (We'll discuss those a bit later.)
As with all important documents, I strongly suggest that you send your extension (and any payment you make) via certified mail or other IRS-approved delivery services from carriers such as Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick FedEx (NYSE: FDX), UPS (NYSE: UPS), or DHL, with a dated return receipt that you can use to prove timely filing of your extension.
For people residing out of the country, special rules apply. An automatic two-month extension for filing your return and paying your tax is given to U.S. citizens and residents whose tax homes "in a real and substantial sense" are outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and to military personnel assigned to duty outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Understand that this special provision won't apply to you if you're simply on vacation or decide to jump across the border for a day or two, including the tax-filing deadline date. This used to be a common ploy to receive the automatic filing and payment extension, but that little scam is no longer available. Now, to secure the filing and payment extension for taxpayers residing abroad, your residence must be abroad, and you'll need to explain to Uncle Sam where you live and why you live there.
So, what form do you use to request this filing and payment extension? No special form is required. You simply file your tax return by the extended due date (June 15) and attach a statement to the return explaining how and why you qualify for the two-month extension. If you live abroad, read more about your extension and payment options in the instructions (PDF file) to Form 4868.
If you're serving in the U.S. armed forces (or are employed in support of the armed forces) in a Presidentially-declared combat zone, you'll receive a broad extension to file and pay that applies during your time of service. If you're wounded, you could have additional time. These extensions to file and pay the tax also apply to service members' spouses. If this might apply to you, read more about it in IRS Publication 3 and Publication 516 (PDF files). The relief from filing and/or payment can be substantial.
A similar broad extension is available for taxpayers affected by a Presidentially-declared disaster. If you find yourself in such an unfortunate circumstance, you might find some small relief in filing and paying your taxes. Read more about it in IRS Publication 547.
There are some cases in which you might have your tax return prepared and ready to go, don't have a balance due, and might still want to file Form 4868 for an automatic extension. Why? To extend the time limit for funding self-employment retirement plans such as the Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) or Keogh.
While the mid-April tax-filing deadline is the drop-dead date for IRA contributions (both traditional and Roth) for the prior calendar year, a valid filing extension will also extend the time you have to fund your SEP or Keogh retirement plan. So if you would like to make a contribution to your SEP or Keogh but don't have the funds right now, an extension will allow you to defer that contribution until Aug. 15, but still let you deduct it on your tax return.
If you decide to do this, make sure you won't be surprised with a balance due when you file the return, or at least make sure you have properly estimated any balance due with the extension. Why? If you didn't make a proper estimate of your tax liability, the IRS can retroactively deny your extension back to mid-April. If your extension is denied retroactively, your due date to make a SEP or Keogh contribution also reverts back to April. If you make a contribution later, the IRS could deny your contribution, remove your deduction, and also try to assess taxes on your SEP "excess contribution."
You could place a number of other tax elections that must be made on a timely filed return in jeopardy by having your extension denied, too. So make a valid effort to compute and pay any balance due when filing Form 4868. If you overpay, you can always get a refund. But if you underpay or even undercompute your total expected tax liability, you could buy yourself some big problems.
Smaller chance of an audit?
Many people (including a number of tax pros) think that filing an extension will reduce your chances for audit. The theory is that the later you file, the more likely the IRS will have its computers loaded with other people's tax returns and will begin the audit process using those "early" filed returns.
I'm not sure I necessarily buy into this theory. Over the years, I've been involved in a number of audits of returns that were filed on extension. The number of returns filed on extension is tiny compared with those filed by the required due date, so it only makes sense that the number of returns audited would also be comparatively small.
But if you think that an extension will reduce your audit chances, go for it. As long as you make your payments (if any) by the required due date, you'll incur no penalties or interest. Just remember that partaking of the extended filing date likewise extends the normal three-year statute of limitations on an IRS review (read: audit) of your tax return.
As mentioned earlier, penalties become an issue for returns only when there is a balance due. If you file Form 4868 without making a reasonable effort to estimate how much you owe, the IRS can deny the extension retroactive to the original mid-April filing deadline and assess penalties for tardy filing and payment.
By filing a valid extension, you'll avoid the dreaded late-filing penalty, which accrues at 5% per month (or portion of a month) and can top out at 25% of the total tax liability. The late-filing penalty hits its maximum fairly quickly (five months), so avoiding it with a timely filed return or valid extension is recommended.
While this is good news, filing an extension without paying the tax due will not avoid a late-payment penalty, which can accrue at 0.5% per month (or portion thereof) and can also amount to 25% of your total tax liability.
Before you do the math and think, "With 50-odd months before I hit the maximum penalty, this is a much better deal," remember that an extension without payment will not stop the accruing of IRS-imposed interest on the balance due. So if you plan to file an extension without paying the tax due, be prepared for to pay additional penalties and interest.
What happens if you manage to incur both the late-filing and late-payment penalties in the same month? The combined maximum for the two penalties is 5% per month (or portion of a month), so the late-filing penalty is reduced to 4.5% and the late-payment penalty remains 0.5%. Interest also still applies for the late payment.
When he's not dealing with tax issues, Roy Lewis is a motivational speaker who lives in a trailer down by the river. He understands that The Motley Fool is all about investors writing for investors. FedEx is aStock Advisor recommendation, while UPS is anIncome Investor pick. You can take a look at the stocks he owns as long as you promise not to ask him which stock to buy. Roy will be glad to help you compute your gain or loss when you finally sell a stock, though.