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What if you forget to file an estate tax return?

Every spring (or perhaps more often, depending on your employment in Miami) you go through the annual ritual of paying your taxes. Given all of the confusion that is often involved in paying your own taxes, imagine how much more there may be if you have to file a return for the estate of a deceased loved one. The stress associated with it may make you want to forget about the task altogether. Yet what happens if you do? 

The penalties for not filing a tax return (even an estate return) in a timely manner can be found in Section 6651(a)(1) of the U.S. Tax Code. Here, it states that unless you are able to demonstrate a reasonable cause as to why you were not able to file, you will be assessed a penalty of 5 percent of the total tax owed for every month the return goes unfiled (up to 25 percent). Furthermore, if it is believed your failure to file was fraudulent, the 5 percent penalty increases to 15 and the 25 percent maximum to 75. Even if you do remember to file yet fail to pay the amount owed by the specified date, you could be assessed an additional penalty of 0.5 percent of the tax owed until the payment is made. 

What exactly are reasonable causes not to file? The Internal Revenue Service has determined those to be: 

  • Delays caused by fire, casualty, natural disasters or other disturbances
  • You or any member of your immediate family experiencing a serious illness, incapacitation or death
  • An inability to obtain needed records
  • Any scenario in which you exercise all reasonable care and prudence to file on time yet are still unable to do so. 

Note that the lack of funds to pay the estate tax obligation does not qualify as a reasonable cause. 

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