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You have until May 17 to file your federal taxes—but here's why you shouldn't wait

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Earlier this year, the IRS extended the federal income tax filing due date for individuals for the 2020 tax year to May 17, 2021, due to the continued effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

So when's the last day to realistically file your federal taxes? For many Americans, it's actually May 17. 

"You can still file your taxes on May 17," says Kathy Pickering, H&R Block's chief tax officer.

There are multiple ways to get your taxes in. You can file your taxes yourself online (for free if your adjusted gross income is less than $72,000), you can use a tax software program or you can hire a professional to help you out.

Most tax offices, including H&R Block locations, will be open through May 17 to help Americans get their taxes in on time. If you're planning on mailing in your tax documents, you'll need to ensure the package is postmarked by May 17

For some, there are automatic extensions beyond May 17: 

  • Those affected by the winter storms that hit Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana in February 2021 have until June 15, 2021 to file their taxes. 
  • Americans who are currently living outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico also have until June 15 to file their taxes
  • Members of the military and eligible support personnel who are currently serving in a combat zone have at least 180 days after they leave the combat zone to file their taxes

But just because you can wait until the last minute to file doesn't mean you should. For many, it takes time to gather the necessary documents and if you run into problems or have questions, you may need additional time or guidance.

"Nearly every American has had financial questions this season because of the Covid pandemic and resulting tax law changes, and it's best to get it all sorted out sooner rather than later," Pickering says.

Waiting until the last minute can also increase the likelihood of you making a mistake, says Lisa Greene-Lewis, a certified public accountant and TurboTax tax expert. "When waiting until the last minute, you may leave out a form reporting income or a receipt for a valuable tax deduction or credit," she says.

Keep in mind that the IRS' tax deadline delay only applies to federal income taxes. If you haven't filed your state taxes, you may have already missed the deadline. About 37 states agreed to also extend their deadlines to May 17, 2021, but several did not, including Hawaii and New Hampshire.

Some states extended their filing deadlines, but not the due date for when residents needed to pay their taxes. The Association of International Certified Professional Accountants has a comprehensive breakdown of state tax due dates.

In good news, extending the deadline to file taxes until May 17 also means that Americans have until that day to make 2020 contributions to their individual retirement accounts. Contributing to an IRA could help lower your tax bill, Greene-Lewis says.

If you can't file your taxes by May 17, you can file for an extension until October 15, 2021. But keep in mind that while the extension pushes back the deadline to file, you'll still need to estimate the taxes you may owe and pay at least 90% of the amount due by May 17. If you don't, you could be on the hook for interest and penalties.

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IRS extends federal tax filing deadline but states may differ