It may have seemed like you had all the time in the world to file your tax return after you got that six-month extension last April. But if you still haven't sent it in, there's no more stalling.
Thursday is the final deadline — and that does mean final — for filing in your 2008 return.
"This is it, do or die," said Bob Meighan, an accountant and vice president of Intuit Inc.'s TurboTax division. The only people who can skip the deadline are members of the military serving in combat zones and people affected by recent natural disasters.
The Internal Revenue Service said nearly 11 million people filed for extensions in the 2008 tax season. If you're one of those, and you don't file by Oct. 15, you'll start racking up penalties with the IRS right away.
It's a bigger mistake to skip filing than to file without paying money you owe, said Tom Ochsenschlager, vice president of tax at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Sending in your return without payment will save you late filing penalties — which can be up to 25 percent. And to figure out how much you owe, the IRS will file a substitute return for you, without claiming the deductions and credits you might be eligible for.
If you owe less than $25,000 and have no outstanding issues with the IRS, you may be able to pay in an installment plan. If you owe more, you'll have to work out an agreement. You'll still pay some penalties and interest, but the penalties are lower than those for not filing.
"The bottom line is file, even if you can't pay," Ochsenschlager said.
The rules for filing are the same as they are in April. The same deductions and credits that were available to taxpayers then — including the earned income tax credit and the first time homebuyer credit — can be claimed on a late return.
How to file
You can mail in a paper return or you can file electronically. The IRS's Free File program, which offers basic online tax preparation at no cost to people who earned $56,000 or less in 2008, is available until Thursday, and can be accessed through the agency's Web site at http://www.irs.gov.
If you haven't sent in your return yet, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Deductions. Don't take the standard deduction automatically, especially if you own a home or live in a state or city that collects income tax. You can get a quick idea if you are better off itemizing by adding up your mortgage interest, real estate taxes and the local taxes withheld listed on your W-2. If they come to more than the standard deduction, it's worth itemizing.
2. Tax credits. You might be able to claim tax credits you missed out on in the past if your income declined in 2008. Credits like the earned income tax credit, child care credit and the Hope and Lifetime Learning education credits are all income-based, so check to see if you're eligible. Unlike itemized deductions, credits are subtracted from any taxes you owe dollar for dollar.
3. Homebuyer tax credit. First time homebuyers who bought since April 2008 may be able to claim a credit. For homes purchased before Dec. 31, 2008, buyers can claim 10 percent of the purchase price, up to $7,500. This credit must be repaid in 15 equal installments over 15 years, beginning with the 2010 tax year.
A larger credit, up to $8,000, can be claimed on your 2008 taxes for homes purchased this year, and that credit does not have to be repaid. Both credits are reduced for high-income earners.
4. Medical costs. If you spent more than 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income on medical care, that's deductible. The costs didn't have to come all at once, just add up to that threshold. This is another area that could come into play if your income dropped last year.
5. Charitable deductions. You can't claim donations to charity unless you have receipts to back up the claim — there's no more estimating the cash you dropped in the collection plate. You cannot claim donations to political candidates, campaigns or groups, or labor unions.
6. Investment losses. If you sold off some of your holdings that went sour, you need to know their basis — the price you paid when you bought the investment — to figure out what you lost. Broker statements are not always accurate, so it's best to use the original paperwork if you still have it.