Still haven’t filed? Here’s how to get an income tax extension

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Whether you’ve been ill or just busy at work, it’s easy to fall behind on compiling your taxes.

Fortunately, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) grants automatic six-month filing extensions to most taxpayers.

Here’s how you can file a tax extension, depending on your situation and preferences.

An easy way to get an extension when you owe money

There are two basic ways to file for an extension: by filing a form with IRS by mail or electronically, or by making a payment on your taxes due. But it’s also important to understand that while you can get an extension to file, there is no extension to pay.

The penalty for paying late is half a percent of your unpaid taxes each month or part of a month after the due date. But the penalty for filing late without asking for an extension is much harsher: up to 5% of the unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month that a tax return is late, not to exceed 25% of your unpaid taxes.

You can handle both these problems at once: Simply use IRS Direct Pay to pay the estimated amount you owe directly from your bank account and designate your payment as an extension payment. The IRS counts your payment as a filing extension request.

The IRS offers several ways to pay your tax bill, including with a credit card.

How to file a tax extension by mail or electronically

If you don’t have the cash to pay the full amount your estimated tax bill, make sure you file for an extension anyway to avoid the stiffer penalty for late filing. If you prefer to file for an extension by mail, fill out form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. You must estimate your tax liability on this form, and you can mail at least a partial payment with the form.

To file for an extension electronically, fill out the extension request form online at the IRS’ Free File website. (If your income is less than $64,000, you will get access to free tax filing software to help you. But even if your income is $64,000 or greater, you can still use the “free fillable forms” online.) If you find that you owe money when you fill out the form, you’ll also need to go to IRS Direct Pay to send in an electronic payment for at least some of the amount you owe.

Whether you file for an extension by mail or electronically, you’ll need to do so by the regular filing deadline—usually April 15.

Avoid late-payment penalties by paying your tax bill with a low interest credit card.

Special filing extension rules apply to some people

Certain taxpayers receive extensions without having to ask. U.S. citizens who live and work abroad, as well as members of the military serving outside the U.S., automatically have two extra months to file. Military personnel serving in combat zones have until at least 180 days after they leave the combat zone to file returns and pay any taxes due. People affected by natural disasters may also be eligible for filing extensions.

One group of taxpayers who cannot get an extension of any kind is those under a court order to file their returns by the regular date.