James Klaffer is an assistant director of High Net Worth Tax Planning at Northwestern Mutual.
If you don’t file your taxes by the deadline, you may have to pay a penalty on the amount you owe.
If you’re eligible for a refund, your refund payment may be delayed if you file late.
If it looks like you may be late in submitting your return, you can apply for a tax extension.
While taxes are one of the few certainties in life, you’re only human if you’ve ever looked at the calendar and realized Tax Day (April 15 for 2024) is just around the corner—and you’re nowhere near prepared.
But what happens if you file taxes a day late? Here's what to know.
Will the IRS notice if you file late?
The IRS receives millions of tax returns at the last minute, so you may be wondering if they'll even notice that yours is a day late.
The real question you should be asking yourself is: Why risk it? Plus, if you mail in your return, the IRS can see the postmarked date on the envelope, so you could very well receive a bill for a small amount if you're a few days past due.
If the IRS has access to your W2, it may be able to file on your behalf if you do not file by the deadline. This is called a “substitute return.” If this happens, the IRS will use your W2’s to send you a Notice of Deficiency proposing a tax assessment. Though it may seem attractive to get out of doing the work—having the IRS file on your behalf may not allow you to take advantage of deductions and exemptions you’re eligible for. So, it’s best to not let it come to this.
Can I still file my taxes after the deadline?
You might be thinking, “If I’ve already missed the deadline, what’s a few more weeks?” But, it’s better to file (and pay) late than not at all. The sooner you submit your tax return, the better (we’ll get to why in a moment). So if you miss the deadline, do your best to file the next day or soon thereafter.
The due date to file taxes in 2024 is April 15.
If you earn $73,000 or less per year, you can file your return online using one of the IRS’ free federal tax filing options, which provides complimentary tax-preparation software. If you earn more than $73,000, you can still file online using the IRS’ free electronic forms, but you’ll need some tax-prep knowledge if you choose to go this route.
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What happens if you file taxes late?
What happens if you don’t file your taxes on time will depend on whether you owe money or whether you’re getting a refund.
If you’re getting a refund, you won’t be penalized
If you’re expecting to get a refund, the good news is that the only consequence of submitting your return after the deadline is that you’ll get your refund late. While you should still file as soon as you can, you can technically claim your refund up to three years after the deadline. (Although we don't recommend waiting that long.) If you don’t claim your refund within three years, you’ll forfeit the refund entirely.
If you owe taxes, you’ll pay a penalty and interest
Keep in mind paying late comes with repercussions. For every month that you file late, you’ll have to pay an additional 5 percent “failure to file” penalty on the total amount you owe.
It’s important to note that a month doesn’t mean 30 days to the IRS. Filing your return even one day late means you'll still be hit with the full 5 percent penalty. You may also be subject to a failure to pay penalty—a fee the IRS charges on unpaid overdue taxes. This fee is 0.5 percent of the unpaid amount per month up to 25 percent of the total amount owed.
If you’re late in filing (and paying), you actually may be responsible for both fees. However, in this case, the IRS would reduce your failure to file fee by the failure to pay fee. So, if you are one month late filing your taxes, rather than owing a 5 percent failure to file fee, you’d owe a 4.5 percent failure to file fee and a 0.5 percent failure to pay penalty.
If you can’t pay the full amount you owe when you file, paying what you can and looking into payment plans with the IRS is better than paying nothing.
How to file for a tax extension
If you’re going to be late (even by a day), make sure to file for an automatic extension. While you'll still have to fill out and file as much of your 1040 as you can (as well as pay your estimated taxes), you'll have until October 15 of that year to finish the tax-filing process.
Tips to avoid filing your taxes late
The tax deadline is something you’ll know well in advance—so the best way to make sure you don’t file late is to stay organized. As soon as you receive tax documents, come up with a system for organizing them so you’re prepared to file. Rather than waiting until the tax deadline, try to file as soon as you have all the documents you need. Your employer must send you your W-2 by January 31, so if they’re behind, make sure you contact your HR department for help.
And if you need help filing your taxes—reach out for professional help. Many people hire a tax professional to prepare their taxes for them (and doing so can actually help make sure you’re making the most of deductions and credits). A Northwestern Mutual financial advisor can also be great source, as they can help you look at your plan more broadly to make sure you have a plan for your taxes. They’re also well-connected with tax professionals that can help answer questions for you about your return.
This publication is not intended as legal or tax advice. Taxpayers should seek advice based on their particular circumstances from an independent tax advisor.
James Klaffer has over 28 years of experience in individual taxation—including many years with a Big Four accounting firm. At Northwestern Mutual, he provides in-depth tax planning ideas for high-net-worth individuals and those working with expatriate/foreign national tax issues.