If you like the thrill of waiting until the last minute to complete your tax return, this is go time. Here are a few tips that should make these last days go as smoothly as possible — even for procrastinators.
Clear your calendar: The tax-filing deadline is three days later than usual this year — on April 18, rather than the traditional April 15 — so you can say goodbye to your weekend now. The IRS estimates that it takes 16 hours to complete Form 1040 (although 1040-EZ filers can get away with only 4 hours of work).
Pull your papers: To make the process as painless as possible, grab last year’s return and this year’s 1099s and W-2s, as well as any documentation of charitable giving; I find that credit card summaries and checking account ledgers are also helpful. You should also think about any life changes that have occurred since last year — big ones include the sale or purchase of a house, a marriage or divorce, a change in employment — any of which might prompt a new entry for this year’s taxes.
File for an extension: If you run hit a brick wall as you are preparing your returns and really can’t meet the deadline, file for a six-month extension; to do so, you’ll need to submit Form 4868 by April 18. Blow this one, and you will face nasty penalties for both late filing and late payment. These can add up to almost 50% of what your ordinary tax bill would have been. One major caveat: The IRS gives you extra time to file, but not to pay. So estimate your tax liability and pay at least 90% of it to avoid a penalty.
There’s one added bonus of taking an extension, by the way: If you’ve gotten stuck going it alone, you’ll now have plenty of time to contact a tax professional, who may be more willing to take on a new client after the rush of tax season.
Spread out your payments: Some people go through the whole process and then realize that they owe Uncle Sam some dough. Whatever you do, even if you don’t have the money on hand to pay the taxes owed, do not try to hide from the IRS. You have a few options to use instead: You can apply for a free 120-day extension to pay the bill; use an IRS installment plan; or make an offer in compromise. You can even use a credit card, although credit cards can be an expensive way to go — you’ll often pay fees charged by your credit card company, which can be up to 2.35%, as well as any finance charges you incur by not paying it off within a month. You’re better off paying by check or doing an online electronic funds transfer.