Tax tremors

Experts say early start is key

Experts say early start is key

February 07, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

Patricia Anne Snell can breathe again. For a little while, anyway.

The Hagerstown certified public accountant has just emerged from part one of her busiest time of year, with a few relatively low-key weeks before the taxation machine revs up again.

In January, Snell negotiated the sea of year-end, quarterly and monthly business reports. Come March, more corporation deadlines crop up. In the middle of it all, other clients will begin trickling into her Opal Court office with personal tax returns.

But, truth be told, Snell wouldn't mind if people could file their tax returns on their own. Returns for single people with no dependents are one thing, but accounting becomes exponentially more complicated for families, with mounting credits and deductions


"I think tax laws are too complex for most people," she says. "I think that's a shame. I think people should be able to do their own tax return and only come to me if they don't want to do their tax return."

The IRS and its potential penalties may seem imposing to some. Skulking in the shadows, ready to pounce, snorting fire and brimstone, eager to capitalize on the fears of an unsuspecting mark.

Sound like the monster under the bed? As the April 15 tax filing deadline approaches, though, there are ways to take the bite out of tax time.

Start with eliminating the errors most often found on returns. Jim Dupree, IRS spokesman, says these can be as simple as forgetting to fill in a social security number.

"People forget to sign the form," he says of another common omission. "They'll get everything else done and pop it in the mail, and actually forget to sign the form."

Often born of a last-minute mad dash to file on deadline day, Dupree says most errors are easily solved by paying attention and taking care to prepare early.

It is, David Sullivan says, easier said than done.

"It's fairly complicated to read through these forms, and probably the biggest mistake made by people preparing themselves is math," says Sullivan, owner of Sullivan and Associates in Martinsburg, W.Va. "It takes a lot of time to research and read through the paperwork to make sure you're doing it properly."

Filing late is what Snell has a hard time comprehending, particularly when sneaking in under the wire is treated as a badge of honor.

Never mind the importance of filing an accurate return. The longer it takes to file, the more patience is required to wait for possible refund checks.

"It's really not a game," she says. "It shouldn't be treated like a game."

Eliminating the hassle of tax filing is an IRS goal, Dupree says, best accomplished by filing taxes electronically. The IRS established the service in 1986. By 1990, 8.7 million individual returns were filed electronically. By 2000, e-filers totaled 40.7 million, up to more than 47 million last year, including 900,000 in Maryland.

Dupree expects another 16-percent growth in e-filers this tax season, with the goal of having 60 percent of the more than 78 million taxpayers eligible to e-file taking advantage of the service.

Among its benefits is the step-by-step input of information that ensures all data required is included.

"It's fast, it's accurate, you get your refund in half the time, and you get confirmation," he says, giving e-file the hard sell. "That takes a load off your mind, to know we received the return and everything's OK. Normally, you send it off and don't know it's OK."

Bottom line, the experts say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Take time early to review law changes to prevent numbers-crunching headaches with under the wire filing.

This is made easier by tax booklets, which include changes taxpayers should be aware of.

"If they would just pick it up, flip through and ask what's new, there might be something in there like the earned income credit," Snell says. "Even if they qualify for $500, isn't it worth looking for these changes in tax law?"

Tips for tackling returns

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