If you live in an area hit by the recent hurricanes, floods, or wildfires, the IRS is taking steps to make your life a little easier.

The agency has announced several programs that, when combined with existing tax rules, may lessen the financial burden from these natural disasters.

Here’s a rundown of new and existing programs from the IRS. 

Tax deadline extensions. The IRS has extended various filing deadlines for people or businesses in disaster areas named by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For example, if you were affected by the California wildfires, live in one of nine counties designated by the IRS, and planned to either file a tax return extension this month or pay quarterly estimated taxes, you now have until Jan. 31, 2018. 

Leniency if you owe money to the IRS. During the disaster relief period, which varies depending on the disaster, any payment installment plans you’ve already set up with the IRS are postponed until Jan. 31. Check the IRS disaster page to find the start dates for the postponement period.

The agency is also granting the same postponement benefit to first responders and people from qualifying charities working in those areas. If you believe you qualify, call 866-562-5227 to get IRS help.

If you get a late filing or late payment penalty notice from the IRS that falls within the postponement period, call the number on the notice to have the penalty abated.

The IRS says that interest and penalties will still accrue during the postponement period. So payments you can make now could lessen the pain later.

Speedier filing for a catastrophic loss. A benefit that the IRS has long provided lets you deduct a portion of your losses from a disaster on your tax return. But if you’re in a federal disaster area, you don’t have to wait until tax season to do it. As soon as you know what those losses will be, you can amend your 2016 tax return to claim them. You may be able get a refund far sooner.

The rules are a bit tricky. Nevertheless, if you itemize, it might be worth investigating the issue by consulting a tax professional or using tax software. (A tax pro can tell you more easily whether it makes more sense to amend your 2016 tax return or wait to file your 2017 form.) For more information on writing off a loss, see IRS Publication 547, Casualties, Disasters, and Thefts.

More on Dealing with Disasters

Short-term IRA withdrawals. Another benefit the IRS provides is that you can withdraw some or all of the funds from your individual retirement accounts without penalty, as long as you reinvest the money into your IRA within 60 days of the withdrawal. That could come in handy if, say, your full insurance settlement takes longer than expected. But the gambit, technically an IRA rollover, comes with caveats.

Among them, you can only do one withdrawal and reinvestment each year within each IRA account you own. If you need to do another within that 365-day period, you’ll face a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty on the withdrawn amount and an annual 6 percent penalty for excess contributions, notes Benjamin Sullivan, a Certified Financial Planner and enrolled agent at Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Austin, Texas. (The penalty applies only to people younger than 59 1⁄2.)

You also could end up paying withholding taxes on the withdrawal if you incorrectly fill out the appropriate tax forms. So consult a tax pro to avoid this fate. You can find more information in IRS Publication 590B, Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs).

Given the risks, Sullivan says you may be better off pursuing other options. “Some alternatives include an intrafamily loan, a loan from your employer-sponsored retirement plan, or traditional loans,” he says. 

Donating your days off. Even if you don’t live in a disaster area, the IRS allows you to help those that do by donating the cash value of your unused days off.

The IRS says donations can be used toward aid for hurricanes Harvey and Irma; at publication, it had not extended that option to cover Hurricane Maria or the California wildfires.

With your employer’s permission, you elect to donate unused vacation, sick time, or personal leave time. Your employer makes a cash payment, equal to the value of your accrued time, to a charity that’s providing relief in a qualifying disaster zone. Your employer writes off the donation as a business expense.

You don’t get a direct tax break. But because you’re technically not cashing in that time, you avoid higher income and payroll taxes.


Editor's Note: On Oct. 31, 2017, the IRS announced that donations of unused leave time toward relief for Hurricane Maria and the California wildfires would be treated the same way, tax-wise, as donations of unused leave toward hurricanes Harvey and Irma.