How to File a Tax Extension for a Federal Return

Closeup of a pen sitting atop IRS Form 4868, Application for Extension

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

Maybe you've been busy and have forgotten about the deadline looming, or maybe you're still tracking down documents you need to prepare your return. You know 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.

Tax Day is normally April 15, but the IRS has extended the deadline for personal returns and self-employed individuals to May 17, 2021.

In addition, if you were affected by winter storms in Texas, Louisiana, or Oklahoma, you have until June 15, 2021, to file your taxes. This automatic extension applies to both businesses and individuals affected by the storms—they do not need to request an extension. It covers all common tax situations that usually occur in the first half of the year, including estimated quarterly taxes and business taxes that otherwise would be due March 15.

What Is an Extension, and What Does It Do? 

You're asking the Internal Revenue Service 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 it falls on a weekend or a holiday, in which case your taxes would be due the next business day.

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

When the agency receives your request form, that's the end of the extension process. You still have to file your tax return, but you have more time to do so.

If You Owe the IRS Money 

Unfortunately, your payment is still due by the 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. In other words, an extension gives you more time to file, not more time to pay.

It's best to send a payment for the amount you've estimated when you submit your extension if it turns out that you owe the IRS money, or if you even think you might. 

The filing deadline extension for those affected by winter storms in Texas, Louisiana, or Oklahoma also extends the deadline to pay any taxes owed.

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 at least a rough idea of what you owe, if anything.

If you miscalculate your estimate and end up overpaying, you're entitled to a refund. It's better to be safe than penalized and sorry. And 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, depending on the state in which you live. Send the extension form by certified mail with return receipt requested so you have proof of the date you mailed it and when the IRS received it. It must be postmarked on or before May 17 in 2021. 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 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. This comes with a word of warning, however. 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 this case, either, however. 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.

Most tax preparation software programs will also file an extension for you. Most do this for free, so go to TurboTax or another tax preparation website, tell it that you want to file an extension, then do your taxes with easy prompts when the time comes. 

Finally, you might qualify for the Free File program if your income was $72,000 or less in the 2020 tax year. 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 the debt off over time if you can't afford to pay your taxes in full. You can see whether you qualify, and apply online to set up a payment plan. The IRS will inform you directly, after it receives your application, whether your payment plan has been approved.