Time never flies as fast as it does when Tax Day is approaching. If April 15 is bearing down on you and your tax life is still a muddled mess of documents and figures, it's time to buckle down and make a plan.
If your tax life is simple and straightforward -- income from one employer who gives you a W-2 and the standard deduction -- you can probably do your own tax return online.
If your tax life is complicated enough that you need an accountant, it's too late to start looking for one this year and still expect to file by the April 15 deadline. But all is not lost. Anyone who wants can get a filing extension, to Oct. 15, just for asking. This is your best bet if you're a last-minute filer who needs professional help to complete your return.
The advent of online tax filing has ended the last-minute mad dash to the post office for most tax filers, says Kelly Phillips Erb, a tax attorney in southeastern Pennsylvania. More than 80 percent of Americans filed their tax returns electronically last year, either themselves or via tax preparers, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
"If you're just looking for the easy, fast way to file, the IRS is certainly encouraging that this year," Erb says.
While the IRS will gladly give you an extension of the filing deadline, you don't get an extension on the deadline to pay. If you think you owe taxes, you're expected to estimate the amount due and send it to the IRS by April 15. If not, you'll pay a penalty for paying late.
The IRS accepts credit cards, but that's an expensive payment option because the taxpayer is required to pay the fees charged by the credit card company, which can be up to 2.35 percent. You're better off paying by check or electronic funds withdrawal online.
If you can't pay what you owe, don't stick your head in the sand, Erb advises. Reach out to the IRS and ask for an installment agreement, or hire a professional to negotiate for you. "People need to not be scared of the installment agreement," Erb says. "You don't want to just ignore the IRS because that ticks them off."
Here are eight tips for last-minute tax filers:
1. Get an extension. With taxes, it's better to be right than early. If you don't have time to do your taxes properly or you need to find professional help, ask for more time. You can get a six-month extension just by filing form 4868, giving you until Oct. 15 to file. You must still estimate the amount you owe and send it in by April 15.
2. File your taxes free. See if you can file free online. One of the best options is the IRS Free File program, which works with commercial tax software companies to create free online filing tools for taxpayers who earned less than $58,000 in the previous year. If your annual income exceeds the limit or you otherwise don't qualify for the free filing programs, you can still file your federal income tax return online using free fillable forms from the IRS.
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3. Get free tax help. The IRS has a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, and AARP and local community groups also offer free help. Most of these programs are for people whose returns are relatively simple, and some have income or age limits. If you plan to take advantage of these groups, do it sooner rather than later because some close before April 15.
4. Open or contribute to an individual retirement account. You can make 2013 contributions to a regular or Roth IRA, Coverdell Education Savings Account or Simplified Employee Pension IRA through Tax Day. If you don't already have an account, get moving because sometimes opening an account and transferring money takes several days.
5. Find the money to pay what you owe. The IRS is serious about payment deadlines. You can pay by credit card, but that will cost you 1.87 percent to 2.35 percent in fees, depending on the service provider. If you can't pay what you owe, ask the IRS for an installment plan or hire a professional -- accountants, enrolled agents or tax lawyers are typically the best choice -- to handle that for you.
6. Get professional help if you need it. If your tax situation is complicated or you owe much more than you can pay, file an extension and seek professional help. The rules are complex for short sales and foreclosures, small businesses, investment losses and other issues. If any of those are mucking up your tax picture, professional assistance is probably the way to go.
7. Check your math and your numbers. If you make a mistake on your return, the IRS may take longer to process it or even kick it back to you. Make sure your basic information, such as your Social Security number, is correct. Double-check your math, and then double-check that you've entered the correct numbers in the correct places.
8. Make sure you have all the forms you need. April 15 is too late to discover that you're missing a W-2 form, the cost basis information for stocks you sold or a Social Security number for your new baby. If you're an independent contractor, you don't need to have 1099 forms from all your clients, but you do need to report all income, whether you received 1099s or not. Since the company will have sent the forms to the IRS, it's smart to make sure you have copies and declare the same number.
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