I Didn't File Last Year's Taxes. Now What?

April 06, 2011

Dear Carrie,

Last year, I was all set to file my tax return, but when I saw how much I owed, I balked and didn't do it. Now I'm scared. Can I still file this year's return? What should I do about last year? 

—A Reader

Dear Reader,

I'm glad you're asking this question—and not a moment too soon. Because, while you don't have to be afraid of the IRS, you definitely need to take action right away. Not filing your tax return is a very costly choice.

There are penalties for both failure to file and failure to pay. The penalty for failure to file is 5% per month (or partial month) up to a maximum of 25% of what you owe. The failure-to-pay penalty is a less burdensome 1/2% of your unpaid balance per month or partial month up to 25%. (This is included in the failure-to-file penalty for the first five months if you're paying them concurrently. However, if your return is more than 60 days late, the penalty will not be less than $135 or 100% of the balance due, whichever is less.) And on top of these penalties, the government charges interest on your unpaid taxes.

So let's say your unpaid tax bill is $3,000. Twelve months later, you owe a failure to file penalty of $750 (25%). Plus, you owe the 1/2% failure to pay penalty on seven months (the first five months were included in the $750) for another $105. Then, let's say you're paying 4% a year in interest. That adds another $120. You've increased your tax burden considerably—and it will keep going up until you do something. 

And that's not all. If you don't respond to the IRS's attempt to collect your taxes, it can file a lien against you, which is a legal claim to your current and future property for the amount of the unpaid taxes. Plus, this lien goes on your credit report—a significant black mark.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to minimize the damage.

How to file a past due tax return
Gather all your tax documents for the previous year. You say you were ready to file, but were stopped by how much you owed. Well, take another look. Did you take all the deductions and exemptions due to you to lower your taxable income?  Or might you be eligible for a credit, such as the new American opportunity credit or the earned income tax credit?

If the tax due is still more than you can handle, file your past due return anyway and pay as much as you can. Then contact the IRS to see what arrangements you can make to pay your bill. Contrary to many people's beliefs, the IRS does want to help you resolve your issues and has trained staff on hand to discuss your situation and offer solutions. You can call the IRS toll-free at 1-800-829-1040.

What about this year's taxes?
Filing your past due return doesn't let you off the hook for the current year. Even if you owe back taxes, you're still responsible for paying this year's taxes on time. If this only seems to add insult to injury, you do have some options—as long as you file your return. The IRS offers a few different payment plans depending on your circumstances, including:

  • An agreement to pay in full within 60 or 120 days
  • Monthly payments through an installment agreement
  • Temporary delay or significant hardship consideration
The most important thing is to file on time and pay what you can. Even if you can't pay the entire tax bill, you'll avoid the hefty failure to file penalty. Then, working with the IRS, you may be able to lessen or avoid the failure to pay penalty altogether.

What filing for an extension means
If you're behind the eight ball in getting your current taxes ready, you can request a 6-month extension. But what many people don't realize is that an extension only allows you to file your return late. You're still required to pay your taxes by the April deadline. So gather your documents and put together your best estimate of current taxes due. Then include your payment with Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. You must get this form in the mail by the due date for filing (April 18th for your 2010 return) to avoid the failure-to-file penalty.

Where to get help
If your situation is complicated, you may want to talk to a tax professional to get things sorted out. But as I said, the IRS is ready and willing to help anyone who makes a good faith effort to file their taxes, and offers free assistance online, by phone or in person. Plus, new changes to the lien system make it easier for people with tax debt to clear their record. Go to IRS.gov for more details or call 1 (800) 829-1040—the sooner the better.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment planning advice. The type of securities and investment strategies mentioned may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review a security transaction and investment strategy for his or her own particular situation. Data contained here is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, consult with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager.  



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