Examples of really bad ideas: Forgetting your spouse’s birthday or your anniversary, do-it-yourself brain surgery, and forgetting to file your federal tax return or pay your federal taxes. You may be short on the cash to pay your taxes, but there are better ways to address your tax problem than avoiding it entirely.
The IRS considers failure to file a more serious situation than failure to pay, and the penalties are appropriately greater. Failure-to-file penalties typically accrue at the rate of 5% of your unpaid taxes each month (or partial month) that the return is late, up to 25% of the total taxes owed. If the tax filing is overdue by more than sixty days, you will incur a minimum penalty of $135 or 100% of your unpaid tax.
That is just the penalty payment – you still have to deal with accrued interest on the unpaid taxes from the due date until the date of payment (at the 3% non-corporate interest rate, valid through the first quarter of 2016).
You may be able to get an extension on filing your taxes for up to six months under certain circumstances, such as death or illness of family members, natural disasters, incomplete tax documentation, living abroad in some situations, or being deployed in a combat zone. You may also qualify based on technical problems – for example, if you are paying electronically and the routing number supplied by your bank is incorrect.
To apply for an extension in almost all cases, you must file IRS Form 4868 prior to the standard April 18th filing date. However, even if you get an extension to file your tax return, you are still responsible for paying your taxes on the original due date.
To allow for some payment latitude for estimates, the IRS waives the failure-to-pay penalty if you pay at least 90% of your taxes before the original due date and you pay the rest by the end of the extension. If you file electronically and use the IRS electronic payments options, you will not need to submit a paper copy of Form 4868 – the extension will be automatically processed.
Should you incur a failure-to-pay penalty, the charge is ½% per month or partial month that the charge is outstanding and is limited to 25% of the total taxes owed. Of course, interest continues to accrue indefinitely until the bill is paid.
The IRS is not interested in punishing those who fail to pay – they would much rather have the money. As a result, you may be able to work out installment plans or other payment schedules that reduce your penalties.
In a small gesture of goodwill, when the failure-to-file and the failure-to-pay penalty both apply to the same month, the failure-to-file penalty is lowered by the amount of the failure-to-pay penalty. However, the minimum penalties still apply in that case.
How much more important is the filing penalty compared to the payment penalty? Plenty, according to a 2012 analysis from Reuters via the H&R Block Tax Institute. For a taxpayer owing $2,000 who files on April 18th but delays payment until June, the combined interest and penalty charges will be approximately $43. If the same taxpayer waits until June to both file and pay, the collective charges rise to $314. You can imagine the multiplier effect of longer delays and larger tax bills.
The takeaway message: make sure that you file your federal taxes on time. If there is a legitimate reason that you cannot, get an approved extension as soon as possible, make the necessary payment of estimated taxes, then work out payment terms with the IRS to minimize any damage.
Dream of evading taxes and fleeing to a far-off foreign beach if you want to, but remember that it is only a dream. It does not work that way in real life.