How to File a Tax Extension for a Federal Return

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Filing an extension to submit your federal tax return is one of the easiest tax chores you can face. It's a simple matter of completing and submitting a single form, and it gives you a little breathing room.

Maybe you've been busy and you've forgotten about the deadline looming, or maybe you're still tracking down the documents you need to prepare your return. You know that you might not have them by April 15—or at least you don't want to risk not having them. And that's okay. Just file IRS Form 4868 instead.

What Is an Extension, and What Does It Do? 

You're asking the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to give you six more months to submit your tax return when you file for an extension. The deadline for your annual personal return is normally April 15 unless this date falls on a weekend or a holiday. Your tax return would be due the next business day in that case.

Filing an extension gives you until October 15. Just file IRS Form 4868 instead of your tax return, on or before the original April filing deadline. The extension is automatic. You won't have to wait and hope for a nod of approval from the IRS.

That's the end of the extension process when the IRS receives your request form. You still have to file your tax return, but you have more six more months to do so.

Due to the disruption caused by Hurricane Ida, Louisiana residents and business owners have until Jan. 3, 2022, to file and pay their quarterly individual and business tax returns. Residents of Mississippi and certain counties in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey are also eligible for relief. You can consult IRS disaster relief announcements to determine your eligibility.

If You Owe the IRS Money 

Unfortunately, your payment is still due by the initial filing deadline if you owe the IRS. Filing an extension doesn't normally give you additional time to address any taxes that are owed, and the IRS charges interest and sometimes penalties on tax payments that are made after the deadline.

An extension gives you more time to file, but it doesn't give you more time to pay.

It's usually a good idea to go ahead and prepare your tax return, even if you don't file it yet, so you have a rough idea of what you owe, if anything. It's best to send a payment for the amount you've estimated you'll owe when you submit your extension form.

You're entitled to a refund if you miscalculate your estimate and end up overpaying. It's better to be safe than penalized and sorry. You'll have cut your penalties and interest to just the portion of the tax debt that you were short if you end up owing more than what you estimated.

How to File for the Extension 

Download Form 4868, the Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return, from the IRS website. If you've calculated that you probably owe tax, write a check for that amount and mail the extension form with your check.

The form comes with a list of addresses telling you where to send the form and your payment. It depends on the state in which you live. Send the extension form by certified mail with return receipt requested so you'll have proof of the date you mailed it and when the IRS received it.

You can also file an extension online with the IRS, and there's no need to also mail in a paper Form 4868 if you use IRS Direct Pay to make your payment. Simply mark it as an extension payment on the Direct Pay website. The IRS will accept this as notice that you want an extension.

Other Options for Filing for an Extension

It's possible to file an extension and pay federal taxes using a credit or debit card. Several IRS-approved credit and debit card services can be found on the IRS website. These are third-party services, and they charge fees for the courtesy of processing tax payments.

You won't have to file the extension form in that case, either. Just pay at least $1 of the tax you think you owe, using a debit or credit card. Your payment acts as an automatic extension, just as if you had made the payment through IRS Direct Pay. Simply note that your payment type is Form 4868.

Many tax preparation software programs will also file an extension for you for free. Go to TurboTax or another tax preparation website, and tell it that you want to file an extension. Then do your taxes with the website's easy prompts when the time comes. 

You might even qualify for the Free File program if your income was $72,000 or less in the 2020 tax year. The limit may increase slightly in 2021, because it's based on inflation. Free File is a nonprofit coalition established among the IRS and several tax preparation software providers. These providers prepare returns for some taxpayers free of charge.

Free File can file an extension for you even if you don't qualify for free tax preparation assistance.

If You Need Help Paying

You can often set up an installment agreement with the IRS to pay your tax debt off over time if you can't afford to pay immediately and in full. You can see whether you qualify, and apply online to set up a payment plan. The IRS will inform you directly whether your payment plan has been approved, after it receives your application.