Three Steps to Avoid a Tax Disaster

CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- As the clock ticks down to April 15, do you feel your blood pressure rising? Does your desk look like a natural disaster as you try desperately to get your receipts and financial statements in order? Then you may be need of some serious tax-season emergency care.

The good news: It's not too late to take control. Starting today, there are three steps you can take to salvage this year's taxes.

Step 1: Buy yourself more time: Sure, you could procrastinate until the last minute, pull an all-nighter and then find a post office open late on April 15. But do you really want to complete such critical paperwork under enormous time pressure? Being tired and cranky only increases the likelihood that you'll make errors on your return -- errors that might cost you money down the road.

Instead, request an extension by filing form 4868 with the IRS. It couldn't be easier: All you have to do is fill out a half-page document, and you'll get until Oct. 15 to complete your full return.

Although the form asks you to make an estimated tax payment, you don't have to include any money if you don't want to. However, interest will start accruing on your unpaid taxes from April 15 on. You'll also be charged a late payment penalty of ½ of 1% of your total tax bill for every month it remains unpaid.

If you include an estimated payment with Form 4868, that amount will be reconciled with your completed return, which means you might get some money back or have to pay a little more.

The other reason to file for an extension? It gives you more time to consult with tax pros who don't have time to meet with you now, since they're swamped with other clients. Which brings us to ...

Step 2: Get professional help: If you have complicated tax issues that you're not sure how to resolve, head to one of the Taxpayer Assistance Centers run by the IRS. The agents there can grant extensions, guide you through the correct forms and work out payment plans if you can't pay your tax bill in full.

Although the centers usually are closed on weekends, many will be open this Saturday, March 27, from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., since this is expected to be an especially challenging tax season for many filers.

If you're a senior, or have a family member who needs help, you have access to a large network of free tax help. Many communities, working in partnership with the AARP, have set up counseling programs staffed by volunteers; you can find local programs through the AARP Web site.

Step 3: Go online: The increasing popularity of electronic filing has made it easier than ever to do your taxes. Online tax-preparation sites such as H&R Block ( HRB) at Home and Intuit's ( INTU) TurboTax guide you through the tangle of paperwork by taking you step by step through potential deductions and payments. Another bonus: Many offer assistance if you should get audited after using their services.

Taxpayers who made $57,000 or less in 2009 can file electronically for free, thanks to a partnership between the IRS and a group of tax-software companies. If your income is too high to qualify, you can still file online, but you'll be charged a fee. You can find a list of IRS-approved tax-preparation providers.

No one looks forward to April 15, but it's not too late to save the day from being a disaster. Just promise yourself that if you file for an extension, you'll actually tame all that tax-related paperwork well before Oct. 14.

Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.

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