Most last-minute tax filers fall into one of two categories: They owe the IRS money, or they've managed to find a lot of things they needed to do before tackling their taxes, such as regrouting the bathroom tile.
Now remember — before we go any farther — if you're sure don't owe money, you do not need to file by April 15. Sure, you want to get your refund, but don't get all frazzled.
But if you do need to move ahead, here's our core guidance on filing right.
See Also: The Most Overlooked Tax Deductions
Consider filing an extension. If you do owe tax, don't ignore the deadline. The penalty for turning in your federal return late is 5% of any unpaid tax due for each month or part of a month you're late. But you can put off filing your return — and avoid that penalty — by filing Form 4868, "Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return". You'll get an extra six months to submit your return without penalty.
But don't delay paying the tax bill. Any tax you owe is still due by April 15. If you don't pay in full by that deadline, you'll be charged 0.5% per month on the balance. The IRS also levies interest on unpaid taxes, currently at a rate of 3%, compounded daily. You can get more details and tips on finding the money in What to Do If You Can't Pay Your Taxes.
File online. By doing so, you meet the deadline without getting behind the wheel — studies have shown a spike in accidents on tax day, perhaps the result of distracted, rushed tax filers. If you're filing an individual or joint return and have an adjusted gross income of $57,000 or less in 2012 (that's about 70% of taxpayers, according to the IRS), you can use free online software to e-file a simple federal tax return. If your AGI is higher than $57,000, you can prepare and submit your return online using Free File Fillable Forms (go to www.irs.gov/freefile to choose a program). The forms will do simple calculations, but they won't prompt you with questions to help find credits and deductions and figure out which forms to file.
If you'd rather tackle your return with tax software, which offers advice and money-saving tips, go to www.tax-compare.com to see a side-by-side comparison of four tax software products you can purchase. Online preparation and filing is free for the simplest federal tax returns, but you'll pay extra to file a state return.
Don't miss the big stuff. In the rush to send off your return, don't overlook a tax credit or deduction that you deserve. Breaks for college costs, child care, retirement savings and more may save you money. (For more, see 10 Tax-Filing Mistakes to Avoid.)
And remember: If you sold stock in 2012 that you purchased after 2011, or sold mutual funds in 2012 that you purchased in 2012, you need to fill out Form 8949, "Sales and Other Dispositions of Capital Assets. (See How To Figure Your Cost Basis".