WASHINGTON – Taxpayers are running out of time to file their 2002 tax returns.
The deadline is midnight Tuesday and some people are panicking. But procrastinators who have yet to trudge through the arduous task of number crunching can get a four-month extension from the Internal Revenue Service
By simply filling out a one-page form, late-filers can apply for the extension — but not a postponement of paying up. They still have to pay money they owe the government by midnight to avoid being slapped with penalties.
"My biggest piece of advice is that the extension is only an extension to file, not an extension to pay," said Evan Snapper, senior manager with personal financial counseling at Ernst & Young.
Taxpayers have to prove they are at least trying to estimate how much they owe when they use form No. 4868 to file for an extension. They must pay 90 percent of their taxes owed for the year to avoid penalties.
The IRS expects more than 8.5 million people to file for the automatic four-month extension. The number of people requesting more time has gradually crept up over the last two decades to more than 6 percent.
Taxpayers can either try to make it to the post office before midnight to drop their form in the mail, they can dial 1-888-796-1074, or they can hop on the Web at www.irs.gov and file electronically through computer software or a tax professional.
Tax preparers counsel procrastinators who owe the IRS and cannot afford to pay to file their extension to make sure they get in their extension requests on time. They say penalties for late filing can be much higher than penalties for late payment of taxes.
"I always tell people, if you don't have the money, make sure you file on time," said Frank Degen, director of the National Association of Enrolled Agents. "The IRS is willing to work with you, but you need to do your part."
Those who can't pay their entire tax bill can either file yet another form or use good-old fashioned plastic.
By filing form No. 9465, taxpayers can pay their taxes in installments. Those who owe less than $25,000 can pay the entire amount within 5 years.
Those who want to pay off the IRS right away can use a credit card. The credit card company will charge a convenience fee and the interest rates that apply to purchases.
Tax experts say taxpayers who find themselves waiting until the last minute every year to make the dreaded April 15 deadline can make their lives easier by keeping their tax documents in one place. Those who use a software program to keep track of their finances can usually prepare their taxes with very little extra work.
Jennifer MacMillan, a tax preparer in Santa Barbara, Calif., said people who can't change their procrastinating ways need to at least accept the fact they will always wait until the last minute and plan accordingly. One idea is to block out the weekend before the April 15 deadline for tax work.
"I'd say those people are always going to be that way," MacMillan said. "They're probably not going to change."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.