Filing taxes late? Tips for tax procrastinators

Haven't filed your taxes yet? Despite the fact that procrastinating gets a bad rap, there's nothing wrong with waiting until the last minute to file your taxes -- so long as you get them in on time. In fact, according to a TurboTax survey, 40% of all tax returns in 2009 were filed before the end of February. That means the vast majority of taxpayers file in March and April. If you've waited this long, you're hardly in bad company.

There are a number of reasons why taxpayers may file closer to the deadline. Here are five "tax procrastinator" profiles:

1. The Taxpayer Who Owes. Most late filers probably fall into this category. Research shows that taxpayers who file early tend to get larger refunds. Those who wait a little longer likely owe the government some money. And since Uncle Sam doesn't give you any bonus points (or interest on your cash) for filing early, why pay sooner than you have to?

But just because you don't want to pay until the last minute doesn't mean that you can't get organized earlier. Have your return ready to go ahead of time to avoid last-minute filing stress. You don't even have to file and pay together: the IRS does not mind if you file early and pay a little later so long as that payment is in the mail by April 15.

2. The Taxpayer Who Just Can't Get Organized. When I used to prepare returns, taxpayers would bring me their information in all kinds of ways, including giant suitcases stuffed with receipts. While those taxpayers were generally sheepish (and often apologetic), I was quick to point out to them that they were still ahead, because at least they had their documents. That's a good starting point. Fear of not having the right records tends to put off some taxpayers -- but don't let it stop you. Spend a day or so sorting through your records and deciding what to keep and what to toss. If you need a quick reference for what to have handy for this tax year, you can refer to this tax checklist.

3. The Taxpayer Who Can't Afford to Pay. The idea of a potentially large tax bill worries some taxpayers so much that they put off filing because they can't afford to pay. While there's nothing wrong with waiting to pay until the last minute, it's not a good idea to put off filing altogether because you think you can't pay. You should file by the deadline even if you don't think you can pay. Check out our tips for managing your tax bill.

4. The Busy Taxpayer.
I'll confess: This is me. I work full time and I'm a wife and mother to three small kids. Some days, I feel lucky just to make it through the day without collapsing. And even though taxes are my job, and I spend days writing and talking about it, Tax Day sneaks up on me every year. Mock all you want, but I put an alarm on my iCal to signal when Tax Day is a few days away -- it helps. And since I tend to stash all my documents in a central location (with the idea that I'll check them "later"), I'm not always sure whether I have everything I need until the last minute. I'll admit this isn't ideal, but it's not the end of the world, either. If you find that you're missing documents, you'll need to contact the issuer (or, in some cases, the IRS) to get them. But so long as you have everything together, you can still file on time even if you're running to the post office at the stroke of midnight.

5. The Taxpayer Who Worries. Some taxpayers are so worried about making a mistake that they are practically paralyzed: they don't know what to do. If this is you, take a deep breath and understand there's practically no mistake you can make on your taxes that can't be undone. So get educated and get started. There are a lot of resources available to you -- many are even free tax resources -- including our own "Tax Basics" series on WalletPop.

Let's face it: We're not all equipped with a never-ending supply of time and resources to dedicate to doing our taxes. Understanding your own style can help you make necessary changes to ensure you file on time -- even if "on time" means at the last minute. But no matter which tax procrastinator profile fits you, the rules for timely filing your return still apply:

  • Paper tax returns are considered timely filed if they are postmarked by the end of the day on April 15, 2010. To find out the hours of the post office nearest you, check out the USPS Web site.
  • You can also use certain private delivery services designated by the IRS to meet the "timely mailing as timely filing/paying" rule for tax returns and payments. These private delivery services only include: DHL Express: DHL Same Day Service; Federal Express: FedEx Priority Overnight, FedEx Standard Overnight, FedEx 2Day, FedEx International Priority and FedEx International First; and UPS: UPS Next Day Air, UPS Next Day Air Saver, UPS 2nd Day Air, UPS 2nd Day Air A.M., UPS Worldwide Express Plus and UPS Worldwide Express. Each private delivery service can tell you how to get written proof of the mailing date.
  • If you file online, the return is not considered filed until the IRS acknowledges acceptance of the electronic portion of the tax return for processing, so plan on an extra day or two before the filing deadline to make sure your return is accepted. Remember, you can e-file 24 hours a day, seven days a week from the convenience of your own home.
If all else fails, you can file an extension. It's easy and it will keep you in compliance with the IRS -- which means no failure to file penalty so long as you file your income tax return before the extension deadline (that usually means six months after Tax Day, or October 15). However, remember that an extension must be filed in a timely manner. More important, filing an extension extends the time to file but not the time to pay. As with the form, payments should be made by April 15.

With this information in mind, embrace your inner procrastinator -- filing your taxes little later than your neighbor isn't necessarily a bad thing. The important thing is to make sure that you file.

Are you a tax procrastinator? Take our poll:

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