NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
We all hit a rough patch now and then on the financial road of life, where the loss of a job or surprise expense make it tough to manage the monthly bills. But if you're planning to stiff Uncle Sam this tax filing season, you'd better think again.
Experts say taxpayers who owe should always file their return by April 15 to avoid late-filing fees, whether they've got the money or not. The best strategy is to cover what you can and get creative with the rest. Some, for example, pay with plastic. Others take out loans. And, yes, some even talk the IRS into accepting less than they owe.
The important thing is to explore your options, get that tax return in on time and settle your tab as soon as you can.
"The IRS gets a lot more upset with you if you don't file than if you don't pay," said Martin Nissenbaum, national director of personal income tax planning at Ernst & Young. "That's because once you've filed they know who you are and it's just a matter of collecting."
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Indeed, the IRS charges a hefty "failure to file" penalty of 5 percent for every month, or portion of each month, that a tax return is late, up to 25 percent of the unpaid amount. And individuals who file really late – 60 days or more – must pay a penalty of $100 or 100 percent of their tax bill, whichever is less.
Those who file but fail to pay, however, pay 6 percent in interest, which is compounded daily. (The interest rate is changed quarterly.) They also pay a late payment penalty, which is 0.5 percent of the outstanding balance for each month that taxes are due. This penalty also is applied in full even if you're late for just part of a month.
Note: You can avoid the late-payment penalty if 90 percent of your tax bill is paid when the return or an extension is filed on time or if you can prove you have a reasonable cause for filing late. A reasonable cause in the eyes of the IRS is such things as getting incorrect information on a tax form, such as a W-2. Being "too busy" to file is not an excuse.
Proceed with caution
For those who simply don't have the cash, credit cards provide an easy out. Indeed, paying with plastic has become an increasingly popular payment method. By mid-March, the IRS received more than 20,000 credit card charges, a 13 percent increase over the same period in 2001.
These days, individuals can use VISA, American Express, Discover Card or MasterCard to pay their tax liability. They're best when used as a quick-fix solution when you can pay off your balance right away or when you can earn mileage points or other awards.
But don't forget that card companies charge 20 percent or more in annual interest. They also charge a 2.5 percent "convenience fee" to make tax payments – equivalent to $25 for every $1,000 you owe - in addition to whatever interest they charge for purchases. Use our Debt Reduction Planner to determine how much your tax bill will cost you in interest fees.
If you do opt for a card, you'll have to make your tax payment through Official Payments Corp. (800 272-9829) or PhoneCharge Inc. (888 -255-8299).
Friends in high places
If you can borrow from family or friends, consider this option first. It can be embarrassing to ask loved ones for help, but unless your parents or siblings are real sharks, "they'll charge far lower rates than your credit card company," said David S. Rhine, director of family wealth planning at Sagemark Consulting.
If family loans are not available, you might be able to get an advance on your paycheck or bonus from work, Rhine said. Employers who are flexible enough to offer this helping hand won't charge you fees or interest. But make sure you budget accordingly. An advance now means less cash down the road.
Another option? Permanent life insurance like whole-life or variable universal life policies. If you've got such a plan you may be able to borrow against its cash value. (Sorry, but you can't borrow with term insurance.)
These days, rates on life insurance loans are running roughly 7 percent to 8 percent. That's more than the IRS charges, but most life insurance loans don't tack on fees, said Jack Dolan, spokesman at the American Council of Life Insurers. That means you could save more by tapping insurance if it helps you avoid penalties and fees.
There's just one caveat: If you do opt for the insurance route, be aware that you've got to repay the loan or the amount you borrow will be deducted from benefits that will be paid to your beneficiaries. That's also true if you die before the loan is paid back. To determine how much life insurance you need to buy to protect your loved ones, try CNN/Money's interactive insurance planner.
Of course, there are other sources of low-interest loans as well. For a full rundown, see "Last chance to cash in on low interest rates" or try our RateSearch tool at the bottom of our Banking page.
IRS installment payments
If you can't find a low-interest loan, then talk to the IRS. It's easy enough to set up an installment plan, which keeps you in good grace with the federal government. In fact, if you owe less than $10,000, promise to pay your tab within three years and haven't paid in installments for the last five years, the agency must give you a green light to pay over time.
If your tax tab is more than $10,000, submit Form 433-A. If you owe less than $10,000, just submit Form 9465 with your return.
Installment agreements usually require filers to pay monthly, and payments can be made by check, electronic fund transfers, money orders or payroll deductions. The IRS still will charge 6 percent interest, plus a one-time $43 "user fee" to set up a plan. But it cuts its late-payment penalty in half, to 0.25 percent, for filers who submit their returns on time and who are approved for such a payment schedule.
Be sure the saving you get from the reduced penalty will offset the $43 fee before you apply for an installment plan. For example, if you owe $2,000, the late payment penalty costs $10 a month ($2,000 x .005 -- the late payment penalty), but the reduced rate cuts that amount in half, to $5. So a taxpayer would have to take longer than eight months for savings to offset the $43 fee (9 months x $5 = $45).
Offers in Compromise
Individuals who know they'll never be able to afford their tax tab, or who dispute what they owe, can also submit an Offer-in-Compromise to pay less than they owe. But only about half of all candidates who apply for lower payments are approved. What's more, the plans have certain drawbacks.
For example, the IRS will stop any collection actions while it considers the offer. However, penalties and interest still accrue while the agency determines if you're eligible. That means a bigger tax bill if your compromise offer is rejected. Finally, the IRS also may file a Notice of Federal Tax Lien, which will go on your credit report.
Candidates must submit complex financial statements, including Form 656. If individuals want a compromise payment because they don't have enough in their bank account they also must submit Form 433-A.