What Happens if You File Taxes Late? Here is the Good News and Bad

Just do it already. Reset your view on taxes if you think not filing a return is the best course of action for you. Why do you ask? If you file your taxes late, what will happen?

Well, I'd love to keep it pithy and say, “You don't want to know,” but you might care to learn what happens if you file your taxes late, regardless. Why else would you be here with this question in mind?

I should be more realistic as this is a question many people ask themselves—but should be afraid to find out.

The reality is, filing taxes late can have serious consequences, and what happens if you file taxes late largely depends on whether or not you owe the IRS money—or you're even required to file (more on that later).

If you owe them money, then what will happen is that the IRS will send you a notice asking for payment and detail the penalties and interest you owe with an explanation of what those fees are.

However, if there's no money due on your tax return, then it becomes less complicated.

The IRS has various options available to collect what they're owed, such as levying wages or seizing property, and in some cases, interest rates can be up to 30%. You'll want to avoid all this by filing your taxes on time (even early!).

Back to the question – What happens if you file your taxes late? A lot. Let's dive in and find out.

What Happens if You File Taxes Late

What is a Tax Return?

A tax return is an annual federal financial report that assembles and reports tax payments, tax deductions, credits, and income received for money earned during the prior calendar year (or tax year).

Preparing your tax return can range from incredibly simple with a Form 1040 only listing your income, standard deduction, and pertinent personal information to extremely complicated with the need for hiring a tax professional.

This is especially the case if you have self-employment or freelance business income, make contributions to an IRA, or seek to add additional schedules for reporting more complex passive income investments or tax positions.

Once all information has been provided and any necessary supporting documentation (such as W-2s, 1099s, Schedules, and more), you may file your return.

A variety of options are available to you for proceeding with filing your tax return.  Your filing decision may be more complicated than just choosing which form(s) to use and can include considerations such as whether or not to wait before paying, what payment plans are available, if and how amending returns may affect the amount due, what extensions for payment are available, and which penalties may apply if you don't pay.

The IRS offers various payment options for settling your tax debt, including the spread-out payment plan known as the Installment Agreement (IA).  Different methods may be seen as more advantageous depending on your particular financial status, but this is something you must evaluate yourself.

Do I Need to File a Return?

Despite the scare tactics employed above (what can I say, I'm a CPA who knows you don't want to get on Uncle Sam's bad side), you might not even need to file a tax return to begin with.

That's right. The IRS may not require you to file an individual tax return (Form 1040), depending on three specific criteria you must meet (usually):

  • Your Age
  • Filing Status
  • Gross Income

Minors don't need to file tax returns. However, their parents or guardians may if they qualify for the Kiddie Tax, meaning they owe taxes on investment income (meaning income from investment accounts for kids) or earned income (which they can contribute to custodial Roth IRAs for kids and reap decades of compounding returns).

If you're 18 or older and not claimed as a dependent by parents or guardians, you may need to file. Exceptions exist, as we'll discuss more below under gross income requirements by filing status.

For those, you’ll need to earn more than the applicable standard deduction by appropriate filing status for your situation:

  • If you file as a single taxpayer or a married person who is filing separately: $12,550 (unless you’re 65+, then it’s $14,200)
  • If you file jointly as a married couple: $25,100 (you and your spouse are 65+, then it’s $27,800. Otherwise, each 65+ person gets an additional $1,350 on top of the $25,100 standard deduction)
  • Head of household: $18,800 (65+ is $20,500)

When you earn income above these dollar thresholds stated above by filing status, you'll need to file a federal income tax return (Form 1040). That doesn't exclude the need to file one if you earn under these amounts, though.

As we learned with the stimulus checks of 2020 and 2021, the IRS needed to see a tax return for many individuals. That gummed up a lot of the payment processing and hampered seeing proof of your income. So, you might consider filing a return, even if you don't exceed these limits above.

What Happens If You Don’t File Taxes?

We know when you need to file (mostly) based on the above discussion. Now, if you still aren't convinced filing a return is the right move, I'll really need to lean in and hammer home the fear because not filing a return will get costly and fast.

1. Penalties and Interest

First things first. You're going to get hit with penalties and interest. If you didn't expect that right off the bat, you don't know the federal government. These disincentives usually are enough to entice most to file a return without a fight.

The reason they'd rather pay $50 – $100 to file their taxes with software (though you can get it for free through the Free File Alliance if you earn below certain annual thresholds) than face the long arm of Uncle Sam's fee schedule.

Penalties are the worst. They're not any better coming from the federal government. For failing to file a return (when you are technically required to do so), they slap you with a late-filing penalty worth 5% of the tax owed per month in most circumstances.

Yikes! Because there's a 25% maximum the IRS will assess, you'll pay this each month for five months you fail to file.

Let's say you owe $10,000 in taxes and fail to file a return documenting your tax liability. That means you'll pay 5% of that balance every month for five months, or $500 per month!

But, if you owe next-to-nothing and you file your return over 60 days late, the IRS still hits you with a minimum penalty of the smaller of $135 or 100% of the tax owed.

Did I mention this is just the penalty? There's interest as well.

As for the mechanics of how much they'll levy against you, the IRS charges interest worth 0.5% of the tax amount you owe per month that you’re late from the original due date.

As an example to consider, if you owe $1,000 to the IRS but don't file for a month after the federal filing deadline (usually April 15 or the next following Monday if this falls on a weekend), that’ll be $5 owed in interest.

Not blisteringly scary—yet. If you owe $25,000, that's $125! Also, this is per month. Don't file for a year? $125 * 12 = $1,500.

But, you might not be so lucky only to pay the 0.5% per month your balance remains unpaid, and you fail to file a return. The IRS can double the rate to 1% per month if you don't pay the amount owed after ten days of receiving the IRS' notice of intent to levy.

That will continue to grow until you pay or bump up against the total 25% maximum penalty.

2. The IRS Files a Substitute Return for You

I can't suggest avoiding this option any more than I already am: DON'T LET THIS HAPPEN. Those tax deductions and credits that you think you're entitled to claim? It likely won't go down the way you like.

The IRS will file a substitute return and won't fully capture your tax situation because you didn't give them the details to form one.

A substitute return won't include all the details you'd like shown about your tax picture, costing you money for not claiming applicable deductions, credits, or other tax items which benefit your bottom line.

3. The IRS Will Begin the Collections Process

This one is a baddy. The IRS will come after you for money they think you owe them.

They've got a war chest of ways to extract what you owe: wage garnishment, levy money directly from your bank accounts, or even placing a federal lien against your property.

Just file your return and pay what you owe. And even if you can't pay what you owe on tax day, you've got options!

Also, if you need to file an extension, this will give you more time to prepare your tax return (up to 180 days).

You will still need to pay the tax you think you will owe, or you will face penalties and interest for not paying your balance.

What Should I Do If I Can’t Pay My Tax Bill?

People who are in a position to pay their taxes should make payments as they go.

That means that you are showing people that you are acting in good faith to pay what you owe, and this will also lower the amount of money you would have to pay (that's how paying bills works!).

If you can't manage this, you still have some other options strongly worth considering.

Pay What You Can

If you can pay the full amount now, you can use an electronic funds transfer or even pay with a credit or debit card. Granted, don't forget that you will also owe interest charges if you carry a balance on your credit card.

That could get just as ugly from a financial perspective. Therefore, you'll want to be smart with how you manage paying one debt with another.

You can pay your taxes by sending a check. You can mail it or bring it to an IRS office near you.

Sign up for a Payment Plan

If you need more time to repay your unpaid tax balance, you can file a request for an extension and then apply for an extension. There are different costs tied to establishing an installment plan.

A formula exists that considers your particular circumstances (such as debt, the time frame needed to repay, etc.) and determines the cost.

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Riley Adams is a licensed CPA who works at Google as a senior financial analyst. He owns the investing website, Young and the Invested (https://youngandtheinvested.com/), which teaches younger generations how to invest with confidence.