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How to Get a Tax Extension for Filing Your Return to the IRS

What to do (and not do) if you need extra time to file your 1040

an illustration of a man surrounded by a flurry of paperwork that look like tax forms

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En español | Unless it's a birthday or anniversary, you probably don't circle May 17 on the calendar. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, May 17 is the deadline for filing federal income tax returns for 2020 and paying your tax bill. If you haven't filed your tax return by then, you can file for an automatic extension — but you still have to pay the taxes you owe by midnight on May 17.

Getting an extension to file your return

What if you're still sorting through receipts for tax deductions, or the dog ate your W-2 form? Don't worry. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will automatically grant you an extension to file your tax return by Oct. 15. All you need to do is submit Form 4868.

You can file electronically via IRS e-file from your home computer or have your tax preparer do it for you. Want to file by paper form? Go right ahead. Just make sure it's postmarked by May 17.

If you live outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico, you're allowed two extra months to file your return and pay any amount due without requesting an extension. The same is true for those in military or naval service outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico. However, you'll still owe interest on payments made after the regular due date.

If you're on active military inside a combat zone, taxes are one thing you don't have to worry about — yet. You have 180 days after you left the combat zone, plus as many days you're in the combat zone. If you leave the combat zone on May 30, for example, you have 180 days to file and pay your taxes, plus the 13 days you're in a combat zone after May 17.

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You can also get an extension by paying all or part of your estimated income tax due and indicate that the payment is for an extension using Direct Pay, the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS), or a credit or debit card. This way you won't have to file a separate extension form and you will receive a confirmation number for your records.

The IRS still wants you to pay your income tax by May 17. Even if you request an extension, you'll need to estimate the taxes you owe and pay at least 90 percent of those taxes by the May 17 deadline to avoid penalties.

Can't pay? Still file for a tax extension

Even if you can't pay the tax, file for an extension. The combined penalty for failure to file taxes and failure to pay taxes is 5 percent of the amount you owe. The penalty for late payment is just 0.5 percent of the amount you owe per month, plus interest on the amount you owe. (The current interest rate for late payments is 3 percent.)

If you're unable to pay taxes because of financial hardship, you can ask the IRS for an installment payment plan. In most cases, you can arrange one online with the Online Payment Application tool.

John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.