Many times, when we're trying to get things done, and done on time, life just gets in the way. Perhaps, when it's time to prepare and file your tax return, you come down with a nasty flu and can't meet the deadline. Maybe you're going through a divorce, or it's your busy season at work, or there's been a death in the family, or you're missing some documents needed to prepare the return. Whatever the reason, you might want to get a tax-filing extension. If so, read on, because the matter is probably a bit more complicated than you thought.
The most important thing to know is that though you're allowed to request a tax-filing extension, there isn't a corresponding tax-paying extension. In other words, whether or not it gets your return on time, the IRS still demands payment by April 15. If you know you're getting a refund, then this isn't an issue. But if you think you'll owe money, you should send in what you think you'll owe -- otherwise, you can get charged interest and a penalty. (Even if you guess wrong and send in less than you should have, you'll be reducing your penalty as it's based on the amount owed.)
It's important not only to pay, but also to file for the extension, because the IRS charges penalties for failure to file as well as failure to pay, and failing-to-file penalties can be more severe. The IRS outlines some of its charges on its website. It also wants you to know that if you can show "reasonable cause" for not filing or paying on time, it might not charge a penalty.
It's actually extremely easy to get a tax-filing extension -- for six months. (That moves your filing deadline to Oct. 15, 2015, this year.) You pretty much get one just for asking, as long as you file the necessary form on time. That's IRS Form 4868, and you can send in on paper or file it electronically.
Meanwhile, if you need an extension for your state tax return, too, check with your state's tax office or search online to see what you need to do. For some states, filing the federal tax extension form is enough, while other states have their own forms. If you're using tax-prep software, such as TurboTax, it will likely help you file for an extension, too.
When not to file
There are many good reasons to file for an extension, and many are financially sound decisions, too, such as if you expect a tax law to be changed retroactively or if you're waiting for a corrected form, like a revised 1099 from a brokerage or mutual fund company. There are a few bad reasons to get an extension, too, and one of the worst is this: You can't afford to pay your tax bill.
If that's the case, you're not really getting permission to pay late. You're only setting yourself up for penalties and interest charges. A better move in such a situation is to file for an extension to pay, which will likely still result in penalties and interest charges, but smaller ones. To do that, use IRS Form 1127, Application for Extension of Time for Payment of Tax Due to Undue Hardship. You can also set up an installment payment plan with the IRS. The IRS itself also suggests an option that's actually kind of dangerous -- charging your payment on a credit card or getting a loan in order to pay it. Be careful with that, lest you end up spiraling deeper into debt.
A filing extension is easy to get and can be a very sensible move -- as long as you do so responsibly, aiming to pay what you expect to owe by the April 15 deadline.
Longtime Fool specialist Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.