What If You Miss a Year Filing Your Taxes?

by Victoria Lee Blackstone ; Updated March 15, 2018
The IRS accepts tax returns even if they are years late.

Although there are numerous reasons why taxpayers fail to file their tax returns, a better-late-than-never approach typically saves time and money in the long run. Even if taxpayers cannot pay the tax they owe a year after missing a filing deadline, the IRS urges them to go ahead and file a return. So instead of letting more time go by, it's best to jump in and be proactive about correcting this oversight.

What if You Didn't File Because You Had Missing Forms?

You may have failed to file because you didn't have a key piece of paperwork that you needed to prepare your tax return. For example, you need Form W-2 (Wage and Tax Statement), which your employer provides, to enter your annual income on Form 1040 (U.S. Individual Income Tax Return). If you notified your employer that you didn't receive this form, but the employer failed to provide it, the IRS intercedes for you and requests the form from your employer. And if you still don't have the form by the tax filing deadline, you can estimate your earnings on Form 4852 (Substitute for Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement), or you can file an extension by submitting Form 4868 (Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Tax Return).

Do You Have to File Even if You Don't Owe Any Taxes?

You may have missed a year filing your tax return because you overpaid the total tax amount that was withheld or estimated during the year, and you did not owe additional tax. However, if you were due a refund, you can only claim it within three years of the tax deadline by filing a return. You will not have to pay a penalty for filing a late return if you’re owed a refund.

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What Are the Penalties For Failing to File?

If you owe any back taxes, you may also have to pay a late-filing penalty, a late-payment penalty and an interest penalty, depending on your specific circumstances. Exact amounts are subject to the discretion of the IRS, but typically the penalty amounts cover three areas:

  • Late-filing penalty. If you failed to file your return before the filing deadline, you may be assessed 5 percent of the tax you owe for each month that your return is late, with a maximum cap of 25 percent. If you file a return more than 60 days after the filing deadline, the IRS may assess a minimum penalty of $205 or 100 percent of the tax that remains unpaid, whichever amount is less.
  • Late-payment penalty. Regardless of whether you filed your return or not, if you didn’t pay the taxes due by the filing deadline, you may incur a late-payment penalty of 0.5 percent of the tax you owe for each month that your tax remains unpaid, with a maximum cap of 25 percent.
  • Interest penalty. Beginning on the day after the filing deadline, interest is compounded daily on any unpaid tax until your bill is paid.

The IRS May File a Substitute Return For You

If you don’t file your own return, the IRS can file a return for you, which is its proposed assessment of the taxes you owe. You’ll receive a Notice of Deficiency that allows you 90 days to file your past-due return or file a court petition to contest the proposed assessment. If you do not respond, the IRS enforces the assessment.

If You Need Help

You can call the IRS at 800-829-1040 if you need help filing your past-due return. Depending on your income, you may be eligible for free tax help from the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. The Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program offers free tax help to all taxpayers, especially those 60 years old and older. Call 800-906-9887 to find the nearest VITA or TCE office, or visit IRS.gov and click "Get Free Tax Preparation Help" from its home page.

About the Author

Victoria Lee Blackstone is a horticulturist and a professional writer who has authored research-based scientific/technical papers, horticultural articles, and magazine and newspaper articles. After studying botany and microbiology at Clemson University, Blackstone was hired as a University of Georgia Master Gardener Coordinator. She is also a former mortgage acquisition specialist for Freddie Mac in Atlanta, GA.

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