There’s a when, what, and how of taxes: when to file, what to file, and how to file.

Paying taxes is no fun, and sometimes it seems like filing the forms themselves is just as bad. But if not having to file a tax return sounds appealing, think again. The only times you don’t have to file are:

  • When your income is so low it falls below the limit set by Congress for your filing status
  • If you’re being claimed as a dependent, earn even less than the already low floor for non-dependents, and have only a small amount of unearned income

WATCHING THE CLOCK

Although the official date for filing your return and paying any outstanding tax you owe is April 15, you’ve actually got several options:

File and pay by April 15. You won’t face penalties or have to make interest payments.

Pay by April 15, and get a six-month filing extension. You can get a filing extension until October 15 if you submit Form 4868 by April 15. But you still have to pay your taxes by April 15—usually at least 90% of what you owe—and you’ll be charged interest and penalties if you don’t pay on time.

Pay after April 15. With or without an official filing extension, you’ll rack up penalties and interest until you pay all of what you owe.

Pay as much as possible on April 15, and the rest in installments. You can submit Form 9465, which is a request for an installment payment plan, with your return. The IRS will notify you within 30 days if your request is approved. If it is, you can pay the rest of what you owe in installments. You’ll also have to pay a penalty, interest, and a onetime processing fee.

File by October 15. If you’ve requested an extension, which is automatically granted, you must file your completed return either by e-file or in paper format by October 15. Of course, you can file any time before that date as well.

REFUND WARNING

Beware of tax preparers who offer to give you your tax refund as soon as you file. What they’re really giving you is a very expensive loan.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT FORM

In most cases, the less complicated your financial life, the easier it will be to prepare your tax return.

The IRS provides three forms, the nine-question 1040EZ, the slightly more complicated 1040A, and the detailed 1040. You can use the simplest one you qualify for, based on your income, where that money comes from, and whether you’re claiming dependents, deductions, credits, capital gains, or other adjustments.

ELIGIBILITY RULES

You’re eligible to use the 1040EZ if the following apply to you:

  • Taxable income under $100,000
  • Single, or married and filing jointly with your spouse
  • Not claiming any dependents
  • Under age 65
  • Earned income only from wages, tips, taxable scholarships and fellowships, or unemployment compensation
  • No itemized deductions, adjustments, or tax credits other than the earned income credit

You’re eligible to use the 1040A if the following apply to you:

  • Taxable income under $100,000
  • No itemized deductions or adjustments, except for IRA contributions or student loan interest
  • No self-employment, capital gains, or rental income
  • Eligible to claim dependent care, as well as several credits, including credits for the elderly and disabled, child, education, earned income, and adoption

You’re required to use the 1040 if any of the following apply to you:

  • Taxable income above $100,000
  • Self-employment income
  • Capital gains or losses from investments
  • Itemized deductions
  • Receive or pay alimony

After you’ve filed a return for the first time, the IRS will automatically send you the same form for the next tax year—or a simpler one if you qualify to use it.

HOW TO FILE

In the past, you had to file your return by mail, making sure it was postmarked by midnight on April 15—or April 16 or 17 if the 15th fell on Saturday or Sunday. You can still do it that way. But the IRS has kept up with the times, and you have other options.

Electronic Filing. Whatever form you qualify to use, you can file electronically—completely paperlessly if you choose— either on your own or using a tax preparer. In fact, in most states you can file your federal and state income taxes at the same time.

All you need to handle the filing yourself is access to a computer and tax software approved by the IRS, which you can buy, download and print, or use online. You can get a list of approved software or sites at the IRS website, www.irs.gov.  Just click on the e-file button.

You can also investigate Free File Software or Free File Fillable Forms. You’re eligible for the former if your income I is below the cap set for the year you’re filing and for the latter if your income exceeds that cap.

If you’re using the Fillable Form alternative, the IRS warns that, while the math is calculated for you, only limited guidance is provided. But if you know how to do your taxes yourself and have your previous year’s tax return available, you might want to give it a try.

Whichever electronic method you use, you can expect a faster refund (if you have one coming) than if you’d filed the conventional way. For an even faster turnaround, you can have the refund direct deposited in your bank or credit union account.

If you owe money, you can pay by credit card or debit card. But remember, there is a fee for using a credit card. And if you don’t pay the full amount of your bill by the date it’s due, you’ll owe a finance charge to the issuer.

Worse still, if you have an unpaid balance on your card when you charge your taxes, you may owe a finance charge on your total tax bill from the day you authorize the payment.