The Internal Revenue Service doesn’t like to talk about it, but penalties for filing late federal tax returns apply only to people who owe money. The penalty is a percentage of what you owe. If you owe nothing, 5 percent of nothing is — nothing!
But it doesn’t make much sense to file late. If you are owed a refund, why wouldn’t you want it as soon as possible? And if you have unpaid taxes, the late fees add up quickly.
“Most people with refunds are filing early in January, February and March because they’d like the refund early,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said. “So we don’t see an incentive and we don’t see much experience of people waiting later for us to keep the money longer.”
If you owe money, one of the worst things you can do is ignore the deadline.
“It’s just bad business to screw around with Uncle Sam,” said CBS News business analyst Jill Schlessinger.
Schlessinger says there are options, even if you can’t pay the government what you owe.
“The IRS does not want you to hide, they want you to say ‘here’s how much I have, here’s how much I think I can do in the future,’” she said. “And frankly, if you are proactive, chances are they’re going to work with you.”
One option is to file and pay what you can. If you can’t pay everything at once, ask for a payment plan.
The failure-to-file penalty is generally 5 percent of your unpaid tax bill for every month, or part of a month, you are late. It kicks in on April 16. In general, the maximum penalty is 25 percent of your original tax bill.
If you don’t think you’ll make the deadline, consider filing an extension but make sure its the right kind.
One type will allow you an extra 120 days to pay your taxes. The other allows six months to file, but you are still responsible for paying what you think you owe by Tuesday’s deadline or you could face some hefty penalties.
“If you don’t pay your taxes and don’t pay what you think you owe, the penalties the IRS can levy on you can be up to nearly 50 percent of what you would have owed,” said Schlesinger.
The failure-to-pay penalty is 0.5 percent of your unpaid taxes for every month, or part of a month, you don’t pay.
About 12 million taxpayers are expected to request extensions, giving them an additional six month to file their returns, according to the IRS. However, these taxpayers still must pay at least 90 percent of their tax bill by Tuesday to avoid the failure-to-pay penalty.