With less than a week to go, those of you who haven't filed your taxes yet are likely looking for a little good news.

Well, here it is: The Internal Revenue Service will grant you an automatic four-month extension.

You don't need a good reason for this four-month extension. All you need to do is file Form 4868 (which you can get at the

IRS's Web site) by mail or electronically, or call 1-888-796-1074. The phone service is advantageous because it gives you a confirmation number, although it's available only to taxpayers who filed a tax return for 2001 or 2000.

If another four months still doesn't seem like enough time, file for the extension anyway. Once you do, you can file Form 2688 for an additional two months, making your 2002 return due date Oct. 15, 2003. The second extension isn't automatic, though -- you'll have to have a good reason as to why you're not able to file by Aug. 15.

The case needn't be extreme, but it must be legitimate -- illness of you or a family member, for instance, or the lack of the proper information needed to file your returns. (Your employer sent you a W-2 riddled with mistakes and hasn't sent a corrected version yet, for example.)

But while the IRS may be generous with granting additional time to file, it's a little more stringent with granting additional time to


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. You'll be subject to interest charges and possible penalties (if the underpayment is egregious or the IRS otherwise suspects something funny).

The IRS expects a good-faith estimate of your tax liability and a payment in that amount.You'll still get the extension, even if you don't pay some of what you owe, but it's in your own best interest to do at least a quick, back-of-the-envelope tax calculation and pay what you think you'll owe. Any difference that you still owe will be subject to interest charges and possible late-payment penalties.

If the tax that was withheld throughout the year, plus any additional payments (including the one made with Form 4868) is less than 90% of what you actually owe for the year, you also could be subject to a late-payment penalty, unless you can show reasonable cause. The late payment penalty is 0.5% of the unpaid tax each month.

Also, if the IRS determines that your estimate is unreasonable, it could disallow your extension and assess a 5% penalty for late filing.

All interest and penalties are calculated per month from April 15.

If you just can't pay the tax due, you can request an installment plan. Simply file your return and attach Form 9465. The IRS will inform you within 30 days if your proposed payment plan is accepted -- although, if you owe $10,000 or less, the IRS is generally required to grant an installment plan.

The hoops you'll need to jump through are manageable -- you'll need to show that you can't make the full payment, and that in the previous five years you paid all the tax you owed without the help of an installment plan. If so, the IRS will reduce any late payment penalty by half -- making it 0.25% per month.

By all means, though, if you're worried about paying or can't accurately file your taxes, file for an extension. Filing late is fine if you've notified the IRS ... but if you haven't, a big fine is what you'll receive.