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Tax Tips

How to Get an Extension for Filing Your Tax Return

Can't file your tax return by April 15? Don't panic. It's easy to ask the IRS for more time.

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For most of us, the deadline for filing your 2018 federal income tax return is April 15, 2019 (April 17 if you live in Maine or Massachusetts). But what if, for some reason, you just can't file your return on time? Don't freak out – it's easy to get an automatic six-month filing extension to October 15. You don't even need to have a good excuse or explain why you're asking for more time.

Be warned, though, that an extension to file doesn't extend the time to pay your tax. If you don't pay the estimated total tax you owe by the original due date, the IRS will charge you interest on the unpaid balance (even if you had a good reason for not paying on time). They can also tack on additional penalties for filing and paying late. Don't fall into that trap.

File Form 4868 or Pay Your Tax Electronically

There are two ways to request an automatic six-month extension: File Form 4868 or make an electronic tax payment. Either way, you need to act by the April 15 deadline (again, April 17 for Maine or Massachusetts residents).

SEE ALSO: Top Tax Software Programs for Your 2018 Tax Return

You can file Form 4868 by mail or electronically. If you mail a paper version of the form to the IRS, it must be postmarked by the original deadline. You have to use the U.S. Postal Service to mail the form, since it must be delivered to a P.O. box (private delivery services can't deliver items to IRS P.O. boxes). If you submit the form electronically – either on your own computer or through a tax professional – have a copy of your 2017 tax return handy, since you'll be asked to provide information from that return to verify your identity. If you want to save a few bucks, use the IRS Free File or Free File Fillable Forms to prepare and e-file the form at no cost. Both are available on the IRS website.

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The other way to get an automatic extension is by making an electronic tax payment by the original due date. Simply pay all or part of your estimated income tax due using the IRS Direct Pay service (payment directly from a bank account), the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, or by using a credit or debit card (processing fees may apply). You'll also need to indicate that the payment is for an extension. Make sure you keep the confirmation number for your payment, too. Start at the IRS's "Paying Your Taxes" webpage to make an electronic federal tax payment.

Taxpayers Living Abroad

There are several special rules for U.S. citizens living outside the country. First, you're allowed an automatic two-month extension to June 17, 2019, to file your return and pay your taxes if you're a U.S. citizen or resident alien and, on the regular due date of your return, you're (1) living out of the country and your main place of business or duty post is also outside the U.S., or (2) serving in the military on duty outside the U.S. To get this automatic two-month extension, you must attach a statement to your tax return explaining which of these two situations applies.

SEE ALSO: 9 States Where You Can File Your State Tax Return After April 15

If you still can't file your return by June 17, you generally can get an additional four months to file your return. That will extend your filing date to October 15. You have to request this additional four-month extension no later than June 17 by filing Form 4868. (Make sure you check the box on line 8 of the form.) Note that the additional four-month filing extension does not extend the time to pay your tax (unlike the original two-month extension).

Taxpayers who are out of the country can also request an additional, discretionary two-month filing extension. This will take you to December 16, 2019. To get this extension, you must send the IRS a letter by October 15 explaining the reasons why you need the additional two months. The IRS will let you know if the request is denied. If you don't hear back from them, you’re good to go.

And there's more! If you're outside the U.S., you can also request an extension beyond October 15 if you need time to meet certain tests to qualify for an exclusion or deduction for foreign earned income or housing. This extension will generally be for 30 days beyond the date that you expect to qualify for the exclusion or deduction. To request this extension, file Form 2350 with the IRS by the original due date for your return. If you're granted this extension, you can't also get the discretionary two-month additional extension mentioned above.

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Serving in a Combat Zone

The deadline for filing your tax return and paying your tax is automatically extended if you serve in a combat zone. There's a two-step process for figuring the length of this type of extension. First, your deadline is extended for 180 days after (1) the last day you're in a combat zone or the last day the area qualifies as a combat zone, or (2) the last day of any continuous hospitalization for an injury from service in the combat zone. Use whichever of these two dates is the latest.

SEE ALSO: 10 Best Financial Benefits for Military Families

Second, your deadline also is extended beyond 180 days by the number of days you had left to take action with the IRS when you entered the combat zone. For example, you have 3½ months (January 1 to April 15) to file your tax return. Any days left in this period when you entered the combat zone (or the entire 3½ months if you entered it before the beginning of the year) are added to the 180 days.

This extension isn't just for military personnel, either. It can be claimed by merchant marines on ships under the Department of Defense's control, Red Cross personnel, war correspondents and civilians supporting the military.

SEE ALSO: 10 Tax Breaks for the Middle Class