Whether it's due to missing tax forms and paperwork or sheer procrastination, countless Americans will inevitably approach the upcoming tax filing deadline unprepared to submit their returns. Though you're supposed to file your taxes by April 18 (yes, you get a few extra days this year), if you find that you need more time, you have the option to request a tax extension, which will give you six extra months and move your deadline to Oct. 16, 2017. Keep in mind, however, that while an extension will give you additional time to complete your return, if you owe the IRS money, you'll still be required to pay your tax bill by the original April 18 deadline.

Benefits of filing a tax extension

The more stressed and rushed you feel when preparing your tax return, the more likely you are to make a mistake, and with that comes a host of consequences -- namely, having your return rejected, getting flagged for an audit, or missing out on a key credit or deduction that could shave serious money off your tax bill. If, come the weekend leading up to April 18 (because you really don't want to wait until the very last minute), you find that you're just not prepared to submit your tax return, you can file for an extension and buy yourself six additional months to get it done.

Woman looking through documents.

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As an added bonus, the IRS allows all taxpayers, regardless of income, to file for a tax extension for free. If you're missing essential tax paperwork, like 1099 forms, or you need more time to dig up old records and receipts, requesting an extension is a far better move than guessing at numbers and making a major error in the process.

Limitations of tax extensions

One major misconception regarding tax extensions is that they'll give you more time to pay your tax bill. Wrong. If you owe the IRS money, you still need to pay your debt by the April 18 deadline to avoid penalties. In fact, if you're late paying your taxes, the IRS will charge you 0.5% of the amount you owe per month until your tax bill is paid off, up to a maximum of 25%. If you have your tax return ready to go but can't pay your balance, there's really no point in filing for an extension. You might as well submit your return, pay what you can, and request an IRS installment plan to tackle the remainder of your bill.

Furthermore, if you owe the IRS money, make sure to either file your return or request your extension by April 18. If you don't, you'll face a late filing penalty that will cost you even more -- 5% of your unpaid balance per month up to a maximum of 25%. You should also know that if you owe money and file your return more than 60 days late, you'll face a minimum penalty of $135 or 100% of your unpaid tax bill -- whichever is smaller. In other words, the penalty for filing your return late can be far more severe than the penalty for filing on time but paying your taxes late, so keep your eye on the calendar and get your return or extension request in by or before the deadline.

While a tax extension will give you more time to gather tax information, consult with a professional (if you find you need it), and submit your return in a calm, clear-headed fashion, it won't give you a pass on paying your tax bill. Consider yourself warned.