With only eight days left to get yourtax return, or extension, in on time -- or at least postmarked -- it's time to start scrambling.
But in your haste to get things done, let's make sure you don't make senseless mistakes oromissions that could hold up the processing of your return.
Here are a few key reminders.
Give In to Technology -- Please!
Electronically file your tax return. It will save you time and errors. For whatever reason,about 17 million people are still doing their returns with pen and paper. And I'm not surewhy. It leaves too much room for silly errors, which can hold up the processing of your tax returnfor weeks.
Things like incorrect Social Security numbers or overlooking the kids' SSI numbers are bigculprits. Same goes for math errors or forgetting to sign your return. So do yourself a favor, andlet technology help. Use a tax preparation program to avoid math errors and then electronicallyfile your return. Your return can't be processed unless all that minor stuff is complete and accurate.
Big note to people who changed their name in 2004: If you changed your last name, make surethe Social Security Administration knows. If your Social Security number does not match your newname, you will be unable to e-file your return.
Then have your refund directly deposited into your checking account. You'll get your moneyback sooner and avoid potential lost-in-the-mail headaches. So be sure to have your checking account number andits corresponding routing number ready when you fill out your return.
If you must mail your return, please be sure to sign it and include all documents that havewithholding tax on them, like W-2s or 1099s. Again, missing documentation is a big complaint fromthe IRS.
Meet Uncle Sam, the Bill Collector
If you don't have the cash to pay your tax bill, don't panic. Send your return or extension inanyway and pay as much as you can. Remember, there's a 5%-per-month penalty for filing your returnlate, but only a 0.5%-per-month penalty for not paying the bill on time.
Then consider your options.
You could charge it.
The IRS has relationships with two companies that will let you pay your bill with your creditcard.
Official Payments Corp. and
Link2Gov Corp. will let you charge it using your American Express, MasterCard, Visa or Discover Card. Thecompanies charge a small processing fee (no IRS fee, however) but at least you'll rack up yourairline miles. Just make sure the miles outweigh the fees and corresponding interest your creditcard will charge if you don't pay your bill on time.
You could go on the IRS payment plan.
If you don't want to charge your bill, the IRS will let you go on a payment plan.
Uncle Sam will pretty much let you decide on your monthly payment amount, so think it throughbecause once you pick a number, it must be maintained over the life of the agreement.
Then you can opt to have your payment debited from your bank account, deducted from yourpaycheck, or you can just make out a check each month. The first two options at least ensure thatyou're not going to default on your payments.
You must fill out
Form 9465 - Installment Agreement Request
or create your own writtenrequest. Be sure to specify the amount you can pay and the day you wish to make your payment eachmonth. Whichever you choose, attach it to the front of your tax return.
The IRS will respond to your request, usually within 30 days, to inform you whether your request isapproved, denied or if additional information is needed. And if approved, you'll be hit with aone-time user fee of $43 that will be deducted from the first payment.
Sales Tax Boo-Boo
In typical IRS fashion, the agency came out with new rules about the deductibility of sales tax in 2004and 2005, disseminated the information to most of the tax-paying world, and then changed its mindabout some of the guidelines.
Uncle Sam says he's making the language clearer. Sure. Apparently too many people were gettingan additional tax break and he needed to put an end to that, pronto.
Here's what you need to know. You can now add up all the sales tax you paid in 2004 and deductit on your
Schedule A - Itemized Deductions
in lieu of your state and local income taxdeduction.
But since it's unlikely that anyone has saved receipts showing all the sales tax paid in 2004,the IRS created
Publication 600 - Optional Sales Tax Tables
to help. These tables take intoaccount things like your filing status and the number of exemptions you claim and then offer a bestguess of what someone in your tax position would probably have spent on sales tax.
These charts don't take big purchases like cars, boats and airplanes into account, so you canadd on the sales tax from those items to your final number.
In addition, the IRS said that you could include the sales tax from homebuilding equipment.So originally, it was presumed that if you put an addition on your house and bought all thematerials yourself, as long as you have the receipts, you can add that sales tax on, too.
Well, I guess too many people were doing additions last year.
The language now says that only the sales tax you paid to build an entire home is includable,says Martin Nissenbaum, national director of income tax planning at Ernst & Young.
So for the 10 of you who built homes and paid sales tax in 2004, congratulations.
Other Taxing Miscellany
Too many people are taking the standard deduction when they should be itemizing theirdeductions instead. Granted, it's more work to tally up all your charitable contributions andmiscellaneous itemized deductions like job hunting and investment expenses, but it might be moreadvantageous. And if you're a homeowner, odds are good you'll be better off itemizing all thatmortgage interest and real estate taxes.
You have until April 15 to make that IRA contribution. You need that for retirement and youneed it to knock down your 2004 tax bill. And good news for self-employed folks who fund a SEP IRAor a Keogh plan: You have until the due date of their return to get your 2004 contribution in, soif you extend until August, you have another four months to scrape up the money.
Big note to folks overseas: Just because you're not here doesn't mean you're excused from thispainful process. You just have until June 15 to get it done.
And finally, if you owe money on your federal return and send a check, be sure to make it outto "Treasury Department" not "IRS." In the past, scammers were intercepting tax bill envelopes andchanging "IRS" to "MRS" and then adjusting the check to say, uh, MRS. Tracy Byrnes.