tax deadline

Tax Extension: How to Get More Time to File Your Tax Return

If you can't wrap up your tax return by the May 17 deadline, it's easy to buy yourself more time.

We're just about at the end of this year's longer-than-usual tax filing season. The due date for filing your 2020 tax return was pushed back from April 15 to May 17, 2021, which means you don't have much time left to beat the clock and file your return before the new deadline expires. But what if, for whatever reason, you just can't file your return on time? Don't panic – it's easy to get an automatic filing extension to October 15. You don't even need to have a good excuse or explain why you need more time.

Be warned, though, that an extension to file doesn't extend the time to pay any tax due. If you don't pay your estimated tax due by May 17, 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 get caught in that trap!

File Form 4868 or Pay Your Tax Electronically

There are two ways to request an automatic three-month extension: File Form 4868 or make an electronic tax payment. Either way, you need to act by the May 17 deadline.

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 May 17, 2021. If you're mailing a payment, 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're not making a payment, you can use certain private delivery services to mail the form. If you submit the form electronically – either on your own computer or through a tax professional – have a copy of your 2019 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.

The other way to get an automatic extension is by making an electronic tax payment by the May 17 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 extension to June 15 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. and Puerto Rico, or (2) serving in the military on duty outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico. You don't need to file Form 4868 to get this extension, but attach a statement explaining which of the two situations described above applies to you when you eventually file your return. (Caution: Even though taxpayers living abroad can get an extra month to pay any tax due without incurring a penalty, interest still applies to payments received after May 17.)

Taxpayers living abroad who can't file their return by June 15 can still get an additional four months to file their return like everyone else. That will extend the filing date to October 15. You have to request this extension no later than June 15 by filing Form 4868. (Make sure you check the box on line 8 of the form.) This filing extension does not extend the time to pay your tax.

Taxpayers who are out of the country can also request an additional, discretionary two-month filing extension. This will take you to December 15, 2021. 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 due date for filing your return. Generally, if both your tax home and your abode are outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico on the regular due date of your return (May 17), the due date for filing your return for purposes of this extension is June 15. If you're granted this extension, you can't also get the discretionary two-month additional extension mentioned above.

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, have qualifying service outside of the combat zone, or serve in a contingency operation, 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.

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, this year you have 4½ months (January 1 to May 17) to file your tax return. Any days left in this period when you entered the combat zone (or the entire 4½ 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.

State Return Extensions

Your state may have different rules and due dates for extended state income tax returns. So, be sure to check with your state's tax agency to see how return filing and payment extensions work where you live.

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