The Length of Time to File Back Taxes
Filing your taxes late is much better than not filing at all. You can't get a tax refund without filing. If you're self-employed, income you don't report can't earn credits toward Social Security benefits. There are legal time limits that kick in if you postpone filing long enough, but the obligation to pay never expires.
If you have a refund due this year, you have three years after next April 15 to file your return and get money back. Any longer than three years and your right to your refund expires. Three years is also the limit on qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit and similar tax breaks. If it's been more than three years, you can still file back taxes but you won't get any money back.
If you owe the government and don't file, the IRS can hit you with interest on the unpaid tax, as well as a late-filing penalty. Unlike credit cards, the interest is finite: it maxes out after a few months at 25 percent of what you owe. The IRS calculates your tax using 1040s, 1099s and other paperwork, which may not record all your deductions or tax breaks. By filing late you can give the government the correct information and lower your bill.
Statute of Limitations
The IRS normally has three years to audit your tax return, or six if you've under-reported income by 25 percent. The statute of limitations only kicks in after you file -- so if you never file this year's tax return, the IRS always has the option to audit it. The sooner you get around to filing, the sooner the limit expires. Then you can shred most of your tax returns and forget about this year's tax bill.
If you can't pay your tax bill yet, it's still worthwhile filing a return. As you've filed, that stops the IRS from applying a late-filing penalty. You may still owe interest on the unpaid bill, but you can work out a deal with the IRS to pay in installments. That reduces your nonpayment penalty and keeps the IRS from levying your bank account or applying a lien on your house.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.