Millions of taxpayers who have yet to file their 2012 tax returns have just hours to complete that annual ritual or face possible late filing penalties.

The filing deadline for most taxpayers is midnight Tuesday (think of it as 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, local time).

The only exceptions are for those who are self-employed, or have spouses or partners who are self-employed. In those cases, the deadline is June 17 — but the Canada Revenue Agency points out that any balance owing must still be paid by this Tuesday.

The penalty for missing the filing deadline is five per cent of the tax owing, plus one per cent for every month the return is late. It’s worth noting that the penalty is for filing late, not for paying late. So even if you can’t pay now, it makes sense to file now and try to work out a payment plan with the CRA.

It's also worth filing a return even if you don't have a job or pay federal income taxes. If you don't file, you could end up missing out on what could amount to thousands of dollars in benefits and credits like the GST/HST credit and the child tax credit. These days, the tax return is also a benefits return — people need to file a return to be eligible for these credits.

CRA figures show that almost 15.8 million returns had been processed by April 25. About two-thirds of them generated tax refunds, averaging $1,595. By the time the 2012 filing season is over, the CRA expects to process more than 27 million returns.

Most returns are filed electronically these days, either through EFile, which professional tax preparation services use, or Netfile, which individuals can use to file their returns online. Electronic filing can see a refund deposited in one’s bank account in as little as eight business days. A guide to the latest CRA-approved tax software is available here. Some of the programs are free for anyone to use; others are free for low-income earners.

There are also many free clinics that can help low-income Canadians file their returns. The CRA has a list of volunteer tax preparation clinics here. 

Telefile, which 321,000 people used last year to file simple tax returns over the phone, has been discontinued this year following years of steady decline in its popularity.

The CRA has extended evening phone service until 9 p.m. local time Tuesday for personal tax inquiries at 1-800-959-8281.

There’s also a 24-hour automated phone service for more general tax inquiries at 1-800-267-6999 .  

And for those procrastinators who file a paper return and want registered proof that it was mailed by Tuesday, you can find nearby Canada Post outlets here. 

2012 returns assessed by April 25, 2013

No. of returnsTotal $ valueAvg. per return
Refunds10,380,613$16.559 billion$1,595
Balance owing2,118,896$7.351 billion$3,470
Nil owing3,262,135n/an/a
Source: Canada Revenue Agency