How to get a 2021 tax extension

You can request an automatic tax filing extension, to October 15, by completing Form 4868

Derek Silva


Derek Silva

Derek Silva

Personal Finance Expert

Derek is a personal finance editor at Policygenius in New York City, and an expert in taxes. He has been writing about estate planning, investing, and other personal finance topics since 2017. He especially loves using data to tell a story. His work has been covered by Yahoo Finance, MSN, Business Insider, and CNBC.

Updated October 1, 2021|7 min read

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Your federal income tax return was due May 17, 2021, Tax Day. If you need more time to file your return, the federal government offers taxpayers a tax extension until October 15. Filing an extension can help you avoid fees for filing your taxes late, but keep in mind that this is only an extension to file your tax return. If you owe a tax bill, you still need to pay it by Tax Day to avoid late fees or interest. You can request an extension by submitting IRS Form 4868 through your tax filing service (or by physical mail if you prefer). The extension is automatic, so anyone who requests an extension on time (by Tax Day) will receive it.

Key Takeaways

  • The 2021 tax deadline was May 17, 2021, which was extended because of COVID-19

  • You could get until October 15, 2021, to do your taxes by requesting a tax extension with IRS Form 4868

  • Your state taxes may have their own extensions and deadlines, so check your state’s website for the latest information

How long is a tax extension?

A tax extension gives you until October 15, 2021, to file your federal tax return. This is usually a six-month extension since Tax Day is usually on April 15, but Tax Day 2021 is on May 17.

Who can get a tax extension?

All taxpayers can receive a tax extension. The IRS does not require any reason when you request an extension. As long as you fill out Form 4868 fully and on time then you will get an extension.

Automatic extension if you work outside the country

If you work outside of the U.S. or in Puerto Rico, including people on military or naval duty, you will receive an automatic two-month extension without needing to fill out any forms. The two-month extension means you had until June 15, 2021, to file. If you need more time you can request a tax extension, which will give you four extra months, until October 15. Learn more about the two-month extension in IRS Publication 54.

8 reasons to get a tax extension

You don’t actually need a reason to request a tax filing extension. The IRS doesn’t ask why you want an extension and it automatically grants one as long as you fill out Form 4868 correctly. But here are some common reasons you may want to request a tax extension:

  • You have missing tax forms or documents.

  • You're waiting for a replacement document.

  • You need more time to get organized, especially if your finances have changed — like after a divorce or marriage.

  • You need more time to file a gift tax return. An extension for your personal income taxes will also give you an extension to file your gift tax return.

  • Something unexpected, like an illness, comes up and you can't file on time.

  • You haven't been able to meet with your tax preparer (like during the COVID-19 lockdowns).

  • You spend winters away from your primary residence.

  • You’re on vacation and aren’t home to file your taxes.

Ultimately, the goal is to make sure your tax return is complete and accurate. If you think that you need more time in order to meet that goal, request a tax extension.

Related: A guide to filing taxes after a divorce

4 reasons not to get a tax extension

While you don’t need one, there are a few reasons you may not want to file a tax extension:

You want more time to pay a tax bill. A tax extension to October 15 only gives you more time to file your tax return. If you owe a tax bill, the payment deadline is still Tax Day, so you need to pay what you believe you owe and you may owe fees and interest if you pay too little. Missing the deadline will also result in a penalty and interest on the amount you owe. If you need help paying, the IRS does offer payment plans.

You’re getting a tax refund. There’s no IRS penalty for filing after Tax Day if the IRS owes you a refund. So if you know that you’re getting a tax refund, there’s no need to do the work of getting an extension. Just make sure you’re positive that you’re getting a refund and always file within three years of the filing deadline, or you will lose your refund.

You want more time to contribute to retirement accounts or an HSA. The contribution deadline for most retirement accounts, like a Roth IRA, is Tax Day. A tax extension won’t usually give you more time to contribute to a retirement account or a health savings account (HSA).

You need more time to file another tax return, like an estate tax return. The income tax filing extension doesn't impact other filing deadlines, such as for an inheritance tax return, estate tax return, or estimated tax payment. You still need to file and pay those taxes according to their own deadlines. There's one exception: Getting an extension for your income taxes (using Form 4868) does also grant you an extension for filing a gift tax return.

How to file for a tax extension

You can get an extension by completing and submitting Form 4868 to the IRS by the end of Tax Day. You can file the form electronically through your tax preparer or online tax filing service. You can also print and mail the form.

Learn more about the best tax filing services for 2021.

How to fill out IRS Form 4868

Form 4868 is a simple, two-part form that takes up less than half a sheet of paper. The first part is just for personal identification and the second part asks you to estimate your tax liability because if you owe a tax bill, you still need to pay it by Tax Day. You can read more of the Form 4868 instructions below.

Form 4868 Part I: Identification

Part I has three lines and they’re all for identification. Enter your name and address on Line 1. If you’re filing a joint return, don’t forget to put both of your names. The name you put first should be whichever name you plan to put first on your actual tax return.

Line 2 is for your Social Security number and line 3 is for your spouse’s Social Security number if you’re filing jointly. Write your Social Security numbers in the same order that you wrote your names.

Learn more: Should spouses file jointly or separately?

Form 4868 Part II: Individual income tax

Part II has six lines that require you to put more information about your expected tax return. Line 4 asks for your expected tax liability. This is an estimate of how much tax you’re supposed to pay for the year. You can estimate your tax liability using an online calculator, which many tax services offer for free. Looking at your tax liability from last year's return is also helpful, especially if your finances haven't changed much. Since this is just an estimate, it’s fine if you don’t know your exact liability.

If you prefer, you can also manually calculate your tax liability by using the federal income tax brackets. If you do your own calculations, don’t forget to account for tax deductions, including your standard deduction or itemized deductions.

Line 5 asks how much you already made in tax payments over the year. You can find this amount by looking at your W-2 forms or your pay stubs. Also include any estimated tax payments you made throughout the year.

Line 6 is your "balance due" and you get it by subtracting the amount on line 5 (payments) from line 4 (liability). This value is negative for most people since most taxpayers overpay throughout the year and get a tax refund. If your line 6 value is negative, enter “0” on Line 6. If you do owe money, pay that bill by Tax Day to avoid penalties. You can still get an extension if you don’t pay your tax bill, though.

Line 7 is where you write in how much of a payment you’re making. If you aren’t sending a payment, leave Line 7 blank. If you are making a payment, it’s always best to pay your entire bill or as much of it as you can to avoid late fees.

Line 8 is a box that you should only check if you’re a U.S. citizen or resident who qualifies as “out of country.” You can qualify if your main residence and job are outside of the U.S. or Puerto Rico. You can also qualify if you’re on military or naval duty outside the country.

Finally, Line 9 is a box you should check if you file either Form 1040NR or 1040NR-EZ, and if you didn’t have any earnings that you actually need to pay federal income tax on.

Related: 53 tax deductions and credits you can claim in 2021

How to get a state tax extension

Requesting an extension for your state income tax return is generally similar to getting a federal tax extension. In a handful of states, you automatically get an extension if you filed for a federal extension. Some states have their own form that’s similar to federal Form 4868. Other states have their own rules and deadlines. For example, all Virginia and Colorado taxpayers get a six-month extension even if they don’t ask for one.

Check with your state’s tax department to learn how to properly file for an extension.