It happens every year. One-fifth of all taxpayers wait until the week before the April 15 deadline to prepare their 1040s.
"It's human nature," says Robert Meighan, a CPA and vice president of Intuit's TurboTax division. "People don't even start a week before. They start three days before."
Moreover, the ranks of tax procrastinators seem to be swelled this year by other factors. Taxpayers have been receiving some of their key forms, such as 1099-Bs from brokers, later than normal, complains Claudia Hill, editor of the Journal of Tax Practice & Procedures and president of TaxMam in Cupertino, Calif. "We are still getting revised 1099s,'' she reported earlier this week.
Plus, after Congress ordered withholding tables changed to advance taxpayers the "Making Work Pay" credit, some workers, particularly two-earner couples, had too little withheld from their paychecks and may have delayed filing because they owe more, says Martha O'Gorman of Liberty Tax Services. Her chain, with 3,200 owned and franchised U.S. outlets, has observed a somewhat later-than-normal filing season.
If, for whatever reason, you're one of the late-starters, here are answers to some questions you may have.
Is e-filing at the last minute risky?
One advantage of filing your return electronically is that the IRS, before "accepting" it, screens it for some common mistakes, such as bad Social Security numbers and invalid ZIP codes. Better to catch a mistake at filing than to have to deal with IRS problems later.
But what happens if you file at the last minute and your return bounces back? Have you missed the deadline, possibly subjecting yourself to late filing penalties? No. According to IRS spokesman Bruce Friedland, you have five days after being notified that your return has been rejected to fix whatever you got wrong and resubmit it. So if your return is rejected by the IRS computers on April 15, you have until April 20 to find and fix the mistake.
What if you can't finish your 1040 on time?
Then you're not alone. The IRS doesn't much care so long as you pay on time any tax due. The IRS expects nearly 10 million taxpayers will file a Form 4868 extension this year, which automatically buys them an extra six months to complete their 1040s. You can print out a 4868 at irs.gov and mail it in or file electronically (for free through FreeFile if your adjusted gross income was $57,000 or below in 2009 or through the IRS "fillable forms" systems if it's above that.)
TurboTax offers a $9.95 service that helps you estimate what you owe and electronically file the 4868. Liberty Tax will prepare and submit a 4868 for free, gambling that you'll come in later for the official paid 1040 service. (Its average fees for 1040 preparation: $200.)
What the 4868 won't buy you, however, is extra time to ante up your estimated final tax liability. If you file a 1040 or a 4868 and don't pay 100 percent of what you ultimately owe, you'll be assessed a penalty of 0.5 percent a month on the unpaid balance. Still, that's just one-tenth of the 5 percent-a-month penalty you'd owe for not filing either a 1040 or a Form 4868 by April 15, points out Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business. (Both penalties top out at 25 percent of the amount due and are in addition to interest on your unpaid balance.)
You can pay by check (sent to a special address), via credit card (although the user fees are high); with a debit card or through electronic funds transfer. The IRS' Web site — but not its phone service — gets better each year; it sets out your electronic payment options here.
Among those taxpayers who may want to seek an extension, says Luscombe, are those who plan to claim the $8,000 refundable tax credit for first-time home buyers, or the $6,500 credit for long-time homeowners who buy a new house. If you have a binding agreement to close on a house before May 1, 2010, and do so before July 1, you can claim the credit for 2009--but not until the closing is complete and the required paperwork (including a Form HUD 1, Settlement Statement) is mailed off to the IRS. Be prepared for delays in the processing of your claims.
While extensions are now routine, some taxpayers are afraid to request them, worrying the request will somehow flag them for an audit. Tax pros heartily disagree. "Personally I always do my return after April 15,'' Hill says. Meighan, too, is requesting an extension.
What if you can't pay on time?
The IRS has made it easy — but not exactly cheap — to set up an installment payment agreement. If you owe $25,000 or less, you can apply online for an installment deal. When you apply, you propose payment terms, which the IRS can change or even turn down. By law, however, it must grant you an installment plan if you owe under $10,000, have filed and paid your taxes on time for the previous five years, show you can pay the full amount within three years and are having the proper amount withheld from your paycheck. Alternately, you can request a plan by attaching form 9465 to your 1040.
Don't propose — or agree to — a plan you know you can't live up to. According to a recent report form the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, the IRS has been allowing taxpayers to miss two installment payments in a year before beginning collection actions, such as slapping a lien on their property. But that isn't something you want to test out yourself.
Plus, you can apply for a partial-payment installment agreement, granted at the IRS' discretion.
In addition to the 0.5 percent-a-month late payment penalty and normal interest, the IRS charges $105 to set up an installment plan, or $52 if you agree to have the money directly debited from your checking account. In fact, if you only need a little time to scare up the cash, you may be better off asking the IRS for a short-term payment extension, which carries no fees and gives you up to 120 days to pay in full. You can apply online here, and should hear back from the IRS within 10 days. But getting this one isn't automatic.
Are there any exceptions to the April 15 deadline?
Yes, including for members of the military. Those serving in a combat zone (or hospitalized for a combat zone injury) have 180 days after leaving that zone or the hospital to file, with no interest or penalties levied should they owe more. Other service members on duty outside the U.S. have until June 15 to file, but if they have a balance due they'll have to pay interest from April 15 on.
Taxpayers who live in (or keep their records in) certain recently declared federal natural disaster areas also get extra time. For example, residents of parts of New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and West Virginia that experienced severe March storms and flooding have until May 11 to file their 1040s or requests for automatic extensions, without penalty.
© 2012 Forbes.com