Learn the Proper Procedure to File for a Tax Extension for a Federal Return

Get six more months to file your tax return

Snap shot of Form 4868
© Robert D. Barnes / Moment Open / Getty Images

Filing for an extension is probably one of the easiest tax chores you can face. That said, why would you want to? Don't you want to get this whole tax thing over with for the year? What does asking for an extension do for you? It gives you a little breathing room. 

What an Extension Is and What It Does 

When you file for an extension, you're asking the Internal Revenue Service to give you some extra time to file your tax return—six more months, to be exact.

The deadline to file your 2017 personal tax return is April 17, 2018. But maybe you've been busy and you forgot 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 18—or at least you don't want to risk not having them at crunch time. The extension gives you until October 15. 

Just file IRS Form 4868 instead of your tax return before the deadline. The extension is automatic—you don't have to chew your nails waiting for an approving nod from the IRS. When it receives your request form, that's the end of it, or at least it's the end of the extension process. You still have to file your tax return, but you now have six more months to do it.  

If You Owe the IRS Money 

Unfortunately, your payment is still due by the April 17 deadline if you owe taxes. Filing an extension doesn't give you additional time to any taxes owed, and the IRS charges interest and sometimes even penalties on tax payments made after the April deadline.

If it turns out that you do owe the IRS money, it's best to send payment for the amount you've estimated when you submit your extension. 

It's usually a good idea to go ahead and prepare your tax return in April even if you don't file it yet and don't have all necessary information. This will at least give you a rough idea of what you owe—if you owe.

Don't worry if your estimate is wrong and it turns out that you don't owe that much after all. The IRS will send you a refund, and it's better to be safe than penalized and sorry. If you end up owing more than what you estimated, at least you've cut your penalties and interest to just the portion of the tax debt that you were short.  

Asking for the Extension 

Download and complete 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 money 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. Your extension request must be postmarked on or before April 17. 

You can also file an extension online with the IRS. In fact, if you use IRS Direct Pay to make your payment and you mark it as an extension payment, the IRS will automatically give you an extension—there's no need to also mail in a paper Form 4868.

It's that easy. 

Some Tips

If you can't afford to pay your taxes in full in April or even by the October deadline, you can set up an installment agreement with the IRS to pay the debt off incrementally over time. You have some other options as well. 

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 webpage Paying Taxes by Credit or Debit Card. This comes with a word of warning, however. These are third-party services and they charge fees for the courtesy of processing tax payments. But if you pay at least $1 of the tax you think you owe using a debit or credit card, you won't have to file the extension form in this case, either. Your payment acts as an automatic extension just as if you had made the payment through IRS Direct Pay.

Most tax preparation software programs will also file an extension for you—another good reason not to start sharpening your pencils and hunt for your calculator. Most programs do this for free. So go to TurboTax or another tax preparation website, tell it you want to file an extension, then do your taxes with easy prompts when the time comes.