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A taxing time is here

April 09, 1997

By ELLEN LYON

Staff Writer

Linda Hare showed up at the Maryland Comptroller of the Treasury's office on Public Square Monday morning carrying a fistful of tax forms and looking for some help.

"I don't know anything because this is my first time" filing tax returns, Hare said.

She decided to take advantage of the free state tax return preparation service available at the Comptroller of the Treasury's local office.

Hare considers the service a blessing.

"I'd still be lost if I had to fill out the state (return)," she said.

Hare isn't the only taxpayer who waited until the week before the April 15 filing deadline to get her taxes done.

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True to tradition, the end of January and the month of February were the busiest part of this year's tax season, several Tri-State area tax preparers reported.

But that hasn't eliminated the predictable rush of last-minute filers hurrying to meet the approaching deadline, they said.

"People are creatures of habit. People who come in late always come in late," observed Rose Marie Schiesel, franchise owner of three Hagerstown area offices of Jackson Hewitt Tax Service.

This week, Jackson Hewitt is averaging 20 or 30 tax returns a day, most of them of the more complicated variety for people who owe money, Schiesel said.

Ironically, computers and fax machines have only added to the crunch, causing some people to wait even longer to send electronically what their tax preparer needs, Phil Cox, a partner in the Martinsburg, W.Va., CPA firm of Cox Nichols Holliday, said.

The firm's fax machine has been extra busy since April 1, Cox said.

Some people still sheepishly show up with a shoebox, or grocery bag, full of receipts and records, several tax experts said.

But even that, just a week before April 15, doesn't bother most experienced tax preparers.

"I just think it's funny," said Donna Stavish, a partner in Creative Accounting Services in Fairplay.

"I've been doing taxes for 25 years so it doesn't bother me," Nancy Saunders, of Saunders Tax Service on Virginia Avenue, said.

Taxpayers expecting refunds are usually the first ones to file while those who owe prefer to wait, tax experts said.

Nearly 65 percent, or 1.9 million, of the 1996 returns for the Maryland, Delaware and District of Columbia region already have been filed, Internal Revenue Service Spokesman Dom LaPonzina said.

Another 800,000 returns are expected to come in this week, LaPonzina said.

About 70 percent of all taxpayers get refunds and the average federal refund is $1,300, he said.

There are a couple of options for taxpayers wishing to hasten the arrival of their refunds, LaPonzina said.

Telefiling, or filing by telephone, is one way.

About 82,000 Maryland taxpayers had filed their federal returns by telephone as of last Friday, up 50 percent from last year when it first became available, LaPonzina said.

This method is only available to taxpayers who meet certain strict criteria, such as income level, but it is already earning high marks among tax preparers.

"I think it's great. It's easy. You don't have to worry about remembering to have someone sign the return ... It's quick," Stavish said.

Another option is to file returns electronically, which requires going to a tax preparer with access to the IRS computer or buying special software, LaPonzina said.

Telefiling or electronic filing can yield a federal refund in just 2 1/2 weeks, compared to the six to eight weeks it takes to get refunds filed on paper returns, he said.

Taxpayers can shave another five to seven days off their refund time by having refunds deposited directly into their bank accounts, LaPonzina said.

Refunds from the state were taking four to seven days in January and February but are now taking two to three weeks, Revenue Specialist Judy Schiano Di Cola said.

Several tax preparers said that in the last few years they have had clients whose refunds have been held up because the IRS required them to prove the existence of the children they listed as dependents. The proof includes birth certificates and school records.

That's because the IRS began requiring and verifying Social Security numbers of spouses and dependents a few years ago, Saunders said.

Before that, only the primary taxpayer had to supply his or her Social Security number on the return, she said.

The IRS is requiring Social Security numbers for dependents to cut down on fraudulent claims and to make sure separated and divorced parents aren't both claiming the same child as a dependent, LaPonzina said.

The first year the new law was in effect, 7 million fewer dependents were reported, he said.

"With one fell swoop of the law we eliminated 7 million nonexistent exemptions," LaPonzina said.

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