5 Emergency Last-Minute Tax Tips

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The deadline to file your income taxes is right around the corner, but if you’re forgetful or just a dedicated procrastinator, don’t start hyperventilating just yet. Since April 15 falls on a Sunday, and the 16th is a local holiday in Washington, D.C., you get until Tuesday the 17th this year. Here’s how to get your taxes done pronto, perhaps even with hours (OK, minutes) to spare. 
1. Hit the Internet. Last-second filers can crunch their numbers and e-file as late as midnight Eastern time on the 17th. If your income is below $57,000, you can file via the IRS website for free, thanks to arrangements the agency has with tax prep software providers. Commercial tax prep software like TaxACT and TurboTax let you do your taxes with software you download onto your computer or directly online, then you can e-file your return. National tax preparation chains H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt Tax Service also have downloadable software for DIYers (or for people who waited too long to make an appointment with a tax preparer). Typically with these services, filing a simple federal return is free, though you’ll be charged for more complicated processes and state filings.

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2. Double-check post office details. The minority of people still using paper forms have to get to the post office. Some facilities, primarily in larger cities, stay open late on tax day to accommodate procrastinators, but not all do. Check the USPS website to make sure yours will be open when you get there. Rather than dropping the envelope in a mailbox, “Go to the post office or use some other service like FedEx,” says Jackie Perlman, tax analyst at the H&R Block Tax Institute. “You want some proof that you mailed that.” You can request a return receipt or use certified mail for proof that you got your return in under the wire.

3. File for an extension. If you just can’t pull your paperwork together by Tuesday night, file for an extension by midnight on the 17th, which buys you until October 15 to get your return in. It’s IRS form number 4868, and you can either mail in a paper form or e-file it. But there is kind of a catch. “Remember that filing an extension doesn’t give you extra time to pay your taxes,” says Dana Levit, owner of Paragon Financial Advisors. If your payment isn’t sent by the 17th, you’ll have to pay a late payment penalty. Of course, to figure out if you owe and how much, you basically have to do all of the math involved in actually doing your taxes.

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4. File, then amend. You’re allowed to file a 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ return, then go back and file an amendment with IRS form 1040X. “File online with an estimate and go back and amend” later, says Mark Steber, chief tax officer at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service. “Amending is great.” This is different from getting an extension. The big benefit of an amendment is that you can claim deductions or credits you only realized you were entitled to after the fact. Amendments have to be filed within three years of filing the original return. As with an extension, though, you have to pay any taxes you owe by the 17th. If your income and expenses are the same as last year, you might be able to guess correctly, but if your back-of-the-envelope math turns out to be wrong, you could be hit with that late payment penalty. Finally, you’ll have to use a paper form and mail it in; there’s no mechanism for filing an amendment online.

5. Don’t do this again. Yes, you can probably squeak by with an on-time filing this year, but start earlier next year and save yourself the headache. Tax experts say a lot of the foot-dragging can be chalked up to worry. “Identify the fear or reason for procrastinating,” Levit says. Maybe you’re afraid of making mistakes or owing a lot of money. If so, start tackling the root causes: Find a pro to help you or start early so you have plenty of time to familiarize yourself with the process of filling out the forms. Start a savings account for next year’s taxes so a huge bill won’t catch you by surprise. If you’re hopelessly disorganized, create a folder — in a file cabinet, on your computer or both — where you can store your records and paperwork as you accumulate them.