How To Get a Last-Minute Tax Extension

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Don’t panic if you can’t file your taxes by May 17. The Internal Revenue Service regularly grants extensions to people who need more time. Even though taxpayers commonly need a deadline extension, the actual process of filing an extension for taxes can be confusing. Here’s how to get a tax extension and correctly submit your IRS tax extension request if you’re filing your taxes at the last minute.

How Do I File a Tax Extension?

When you seek a tax extension deadline, the rules require you to first take a few preliminary steps. The general process to request a tax deadline extension is the same whether you file taxes online or by mail. The tax extension deadline for 2020 returns is the same date as the regular tax deadline: To qualify for a federal tax extension, you must file the appropriate forms by the standard tax filing deadline of May 17, 2021.

Check Out: Tax Year Deadline Dates You Need To Know

Can You File a Tax Extension Online?

The vast majority of tax returns are filed electronically these days. The good news is if you need to file an extension, you can do so online as well. Here are the steps:

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  1. Using your online tax software, or the Free File program offered by the IRS, obtain and fill out IRS extension Form 4868: Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return.
  2. Submit your completed tax extension form electronically to the IRS.
  3. Providing you meet the qualifying criteria, you’ll be automatically granted a five-month extension to file your 2020 tax return. (Note: The extension is typically six months, but because the regular tax filing date has been adjusted, the extension time is now shortened. Your taxes will be due Oct. 15, 2021.)

Related: How To Pay Off Back Taxes

How To File a Tax Extension by Mail

The process for filing a tax extension by mail is the same as filing online, except you’ll need to submit a hard copy of the required form. Here’s how:

  1. Obtain and fill out IRS extension Form 4868: Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return.
  2. Mail your completed tax extension form for 2020 to the IRS using the correct address for your location; you can find it on page 4 of Form 4868.
  3. Once you’ve filed your completed tax extension form, you’ll automatically get the five-month extension to file your 2020 tax return, provided you meet the qualifying criteria.
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It’s possible to get the automatic extension for an individual tax return without filing the IRS 4868 tax form. To do this, pay all or part of your estimated income taxes that are due. You must provide relevant tax information and indicate that the payment is for a tax-filing extension using one of the IRS-approved methods of payment. You’ll then receive a confirmation number for your records.

Find Out: What To Do When You Can’t Pay Your Tax Bill

Filing For a State Tax Deadline Extension

If you need more time to file state taxes, note that getting a federal tax extension doesn’t mean that the deadline to submit your state taxes is also necessarily extended automatically. The process and requirements for filing a state tax extension vary. You should contact your local state tax authority to get instructions and details. You might need to fill out a state-specific form as well as submit payment by your state’s deadline if you owe taxes. (Most states have pushed their deadlines to May 17, but not all have, according to this list compiled by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.)

Seven states don’t have a state income tax on earned income, so you don’t have to worry about filing any tax forms at all. Some states, such as California, grant automatic six-month extensions, with no forms required, as long as you have no taxes due or are due to receive a refund. And other states have separate extension due dates than the normal tax-filing deadline.

Research your state’s specific tax-extension rules and requirements to effectively request a tax extension.

Learn: How To File State Taxes for Free

Automatic Tax Extension: How To Know If You Qualify

Most taxpayers can qualify for the automatic income tax filing extension from the IRS if they can’t file their tax returns by the due date. The automatic income tax extension allows you five more months to submit your federal tax forms.

Six months — or five months for tax year 2020 — is generally the longest amount of time allowed for an extension for filing taxes, though certain exemptions exist.

Special Tax Extensions

Some tax filers will qualify for an automatic two-month extension to file their federal tax return and pay income tax. To qualify, on May 17, 2021, you must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or resident alien living outside the U.S.
  • Be on active military duty outside the U.S.

Who Doesn’t Qualify For Tax Extensions

Some taxpayers won’t qualify to file extensions of any kind. People who are under court order to pay by the regular due date won’t be granted more time to pay or file their taxes. Also, if you want the IRS to figure the taxes you owe or that will be refunded, you won’t qualify for the extension.

Is There a Penalty for Filing an Extension?

Filing a tax extension keeps you in good standing with the IRS because it will then have notice that you’ll be filing your complete paperwork at a later date. But a tax extension doesn’t grant you more time to pay what taxes you owe beyond the tax due date. Consider the following penalties if you’re going to pay late:

  • The penalty for paying late is 0.5% for every month that the outstanding tax is not paid.
  • The maximum penalty for paying late is 25% of the total.
  • After 60 days, the minimum penalty is $205 or 100% of the balance due if the balance is less than $205; otherwise, the penalty can rise to as much as 5% of the unpaid tax every month, up to a maximum of 25%.

When you believe that you have reasonable cause for seeking a tax-filing extension, attach a form explaining your reasons to your federal tax extension form. Note that you might have to pay interest on unpaid taxes.

The interest on your late taxes will accumulate as tax debt until you pay the IRS in full. So although seeking an extension past the due date might seem like a good idea, you should file for a tax extension only if absolutely necessary.

Whether your tax preparation goals include e-filing or submitting your returns the old-fashioned way, you’ll need to file for a tax extension by May 17 if you won’t be able to file on time. For most taxpayers, it’s fairly easy to get an extension, but you’ll have to follow instructions, submit the right documents and get your request in on time.

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John Csiszar and Gabrielle Olya contributed to the reporting for this article.

Last updated: May 3, 2021


About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.

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