Hurry Up! Tax Tips at the 11th Hour

It's best to file on time, but if you can't, you still have many options.

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The IRS early last month offered some earnest advice for tax filers: "Don't procrastinate." Well, if you're one of the foot-draggers who have yet to file a return for 2007, it's a little late to be an honor student on that point. With the deadline of midnight April 15 bearing down, the best you can now do is to avoid new procrastination on top of the old. Here are some 11th-hour options:

More time, please.

The best course is to file on time. That speeds up any refund and gets you in line for an economic stimulus check.

But if you're missing information, have a family emergency, need more time to decipher the rules, or can't scrounge up last-minute professional help, a six-month extension of the deadline can be a godsend.

Easy to get. Extensions are given liberally. The standard way is to file Form 4868, which can be done by mail, electronically with tax software or through an online service, or by phone if you owe tax and will make a payment by credit card with the extension request.

Show me the money. The bad news is that an extension is for filing the return, not for paying any tax you owe—which you can do by check, credit card, or a direct transfer from your bank account. You can get an extension without settling up, but tax unpaid after April 15 will incur interest and, depending on the amount, a possible penalty. You must estimate your tax liability on the 4868, but it doesn't have to be precise.

Avoiding trouble. Filing late without first getting an extension when you owe tax can result in a potentially severe penalty for failure to file. That's a much more serious offense in IRS-land than simply owing money.

State return? The rules and procedures vary, but state tax agencies generally follow the feds in offering simple extensions.

Go electronic.

No rush to the post office. With electronic filing, you can literally wait until the last minute—assuming no computer glitches. And if you're due a refund, you'll get it faster than with paper filing, and you'll generally move up in line for the economic stimulus rebate.

Freebie. People with adjusted gross income up to $54,000 may qualify for online federal tax preparation and filing at no charge by accessing participating providers through the IRS website. Be prepared for pitches to upgrade to paid help and to pay to have your state return done.

Entry restricted. You can't file the federal return online entirely by yourself. Though some critics say the IRS should be more open-doored, for now you can file electronically only by using store-bought software or an online tax preparation site, or by going to a paid preparer. (Some states do allow direct electronic filing of state returns without an intermediary).

Help!

Walking into an accountant's office unexpected at this late date isn't likely to get you very far, other than maybe help to file an extension. But chains H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt say they can often take desperate walk-ins. Straightforward returns may be done up to the deadline; others may need an extension.

Late hours, extra staff. A few Block offices in major cities are now open around the clock or at least until midnight, and the firm says all offices will stay open as long as needed April 15.

Jackson Hewitt says it adds staff at peak times, such as during lunch hours or before work. Some last-minute clients think they need an extension but are surprised when a preparer looks over their information and says they can still file on time, a spokesman says.

IRS to the rescue. The IRS website deserves attention. Attractively designed and nicely organized, it's a wellspring of forms, instructions, tips, interactive calculators, and other often surprisingly understandable help and guidance.

Run a tab.

Owe tax but can't pay? Don't panic. Though interest and penalties may accrue, the IRS says it will work with you to resolve a payment problem.

Paying it off. Installment plans, often with a reduced interest charge, can be arranged with Form 9465.

In some cases, approval is virtually automatic and can even be done online.