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Five Smart Moves If You Can't Pay Your Tax Bill

Dana Hoff | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

As tax day draws near, some people may be surprised to discover they owe money — or owe more money than they expected.

What should you do if you can't pay taxes?

If you think you may have trouble paying your full tax bill, don't panic. There are ways to ease the burden. First and foremost, file a tax return or file for an extension by the April deadline.

File a tax return

Whatever you do, don't ignore Uncle Sam. You must file a tax return. The penalty for not filing is 10 times more than the penalty for not paying.

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If you fail to file by the April 15th deadline, you could face a penalty of 5 percent of your unpaid tax bill, plus interest, for each month the return is late - until the penalty hits 25 percent of what you owe.

If you file, but fail to pay your taxes, the penalty is only half a percent of your unpaid tax bill, plus interest, each month.

File for an extension

If you need more time to gather paperwork, file for an extension. Last year, more than 11 million taxpayers requested an extension.

File for an extension by April 15th and you'll have until Oct. 15 to submit your tax return. By filing an extension, you've cut down on the penalties you'd pay by not filing at all, plus you'll get an automatic extension for six months to get your tax return in. Just remember, it's an extension to file — not an extension to pay. Starting April 16, if you have a tax liability and owe money to the IRS, interest and penalty begin to accrue on your tax bill.

Contact IRS to find out about payment options

To minimize the effects of interest and penalties on unpaid balances on your taxes, begin by exploring your options with the IRS.

About one in six taxpayers who file their returns has a balance due on their return, according to the IRS. For many people, their tax bill is a big burden. But if you can't pay what you owe, or you can't pay all of what they owe, the IRS will work with you to get the money. Taxpayers can call the IRS at 1800 829 1040 — or go to the IRS website at www.IRS.gov.

Set up payment agreement online

Setting up a payment agreement with the IRS is often the answer. As long as you owe $50,000 or less and have already filed your return, the easiest and fastest way to apply for an installment plan is to do so directly on the IRS website at www.irs.gov. You can also use Form 9465 to request an installment plan. In the payment agreement, you set the terms and figure out the largest monthly payment you can make. Once approved, you'll be charged a $105 fee — or $52 if you make direct debit payments from your bank account.

Be careful paying tax bill with credit card

You may find it easiest to just pay your taxes with plastic. But it'll cost you in other ways. The IRS will let you pay by debit or credit card through one of five online payment processors — OfficialPayments.com, ChoicePay.com, Pay1040.com, Businesstaxpayment.com, and PayUSAtax.com.

There's usually a flat fee for using a debit card, ranging from $2.99 to $3.49 per transaction. But online payment processers charge a fee of 1.88 percent to 2.35 percent of your tax bill for using a credit card — and some tack that fee on to debit card transactions as well. If you don't pay your credit card balance in full in the next billing cycle, you'll pay interest each month until you do. That's another 15 percent interest on the average variable rate, according to Bankrate.com.

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If you don't like paying fees, there are free e-pay options available, such as electronic funds withdrawal and the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, which allows you to pay via the Internet or by phone.

In the end, if you can't pay your full tax bill, setting up a payment plan with the IRS is probably the best way to go. Just remember, don't take too long to pay. Penalties and interest will continue to accrue until the full tax bill is paid. However, the late-payment penalty is cut in half for any month an installment agreement is in effect.

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