The inevitable waiting game: Many put off tax filing until the last minute

Kathi Firns-Hubert of Lawrence enjoys the scene at a tax party event at the Lawrence Post Office in 2007. The annual party, on April 15, honors all of those who put off their taxes until the last minute.

Procrastination can cause a lot of problems. It can cause college students to pull all-nighters or earn failing grades. It can cause working professionals to miss deadlines. It can even cause individuals to have problems with the government if it comes to income tax returns.

As the April 15 deadline for filing income tax returns approaches — it’s Wednesday, if you didn’t know that already — tax professionals are becoming increasingly busy.

Gil Charney, senior tax analyst at The Tax Institute at H&R Block, says the number of returns filed typically spikes during the first two weeks of February and again the first two weeks of April.

Much of the month before April 15 is the “calm before the storm,” says Debbie Lemke, Jackson-Hewitt district manager for Lawrence and Topeka.

“April 1, people wake up and realize they only have two weeks,” Lemke says.

While procrastination can be a dangerous practice when it is time to file income tax paperwork, Charney says he believes there are numerous reasons behind it.

“Many people just do not like the process. It can be a painstaking process,” he says, noting that finding and organizing required paperwork can be a difficult process for those who are disorganized.

Lemke says for others, procrastination is a psychological issue.

“A lot of people just put it off because it may be a situation where they owe money,” she says. “It instills fear in some people.”

Charney compares preparing income tax returns to a game of Russian roulette. People don’t know if they will get money back or owe more to the IRS.

However, fear is not an acceptable excuse for missing the deadline.

“If you procrastinate to the point where you just let April 15 come and go, the IRS doesn’t let you just use the excuse that you were afraid,” Lemke says.

For others, filing simply isn’t a priority until the deadline approaches and they have to do something about it, Charney says.

While procrastination may be a regular lifestyle for some, it has its dangers in regard to income tax returns.

Charney says the worst thing someone can do is neglect to file either a return or an extension. He says people who fail to file are subject to penalties even worse than the penalties for not paying.

“Another risk is that if it is a rushed job, you are more likely to miss benefits that you qualify for, and if you are trying to enlist the help of a tax professional, as you get closer to the 15th, tax professionals are increasingly busy,” Charney says.

Lemke says she thinks the economic recession has affected the rate at which some people file their returns.

“If people are getting a refund, taxpayers want access to their money as quickly as they can get it,” she says.

However, Charney says the data does not exist to show who procrastinates and how they are affected by the economy.

Those who won’t make the April 15 deadline can file for an extension using extension form 4868, available online at the IRS Web site. However, the six-month-extension period is granted for paperwork only.

“Even though you are filing for an extension, it’s not a deferment of payment, just a deferment of forms,” Charney says. “You still have to make a good-faced guess at what you owe and send it in.”

He urges procrastinators not to blow the deadline off, telling them to prepare a return as best they can.

“There is always an opportunity to amend it if you find mistakes,” he says. “April 15 is not the end of the world as far as tax returns go.”