No matter how prepared you are for tax season, you probably worry at least a little whenever April 15th is getting close. We’ve covered your last-minute tax options in the past, but no matter how close that deadline is getting, we want to reduce your worry. Jeff Schnepper, MSN’s tax expert, agreed to answer a few questions for us, and offered a little reassurance.
Tax Misconceptions — and Problems
One of the major reasons that our taxes keep us up at night, according to Jeff, is that there are so many myths and misconceptions about taxes: topics like who you can claim as a dependent and what you can take as a deduction involve as many urban legends as a bad horror movie. And it doesn’t stop there. Jeff says: “The most common misconception people have about taxes is that everybody else is cheating and getting away with something….giving them the “right” to fudge. Cheating is wrong and I’ve found that the taxpayers I work with understand, and want to do the right thing. The problem is that the law changes every year, and sometimes three and four times in a single year. The professionals are overwhelmed and the average taxpayer completely lost. It’s not that people are cheating – they’re making errors because they don’t know the rules.”
The past few months have shown the truth of that statement. If you consider just the appointments that President Obama has made (or attempted to make), it becomes obvious very quickly that even politicians who can afford the best tax preparers in the country can’t get their taxes done correctly.
What We Can Do to Reduce the Worry
Just because the tax system is complicated doesn’t mean that the average taxpayer needs to spend the time between now and April 15th cringing, however. Even the biggest tax bogeyman of them all — an audit by the IRS — isn’t something you should spend too much time worrying about. While you can minimize your overall chances of being audited by following the rules as closely as you can, and by having the right documentation, there’s a certain element of chance.
“You can’t avoid an audit. Returns are selected randomly as well as based on the IRS DIF computer program,” says Jeff. If there’s nothing left that you can do to make sure that your tax return is filled out accurately, you can stop worrying. If the computer picks your number, you may have to sit down with an auditor, but there’s nothing else you can do to affect the process.
A Few Last Minute Options
Even though you’ll get the best results for preparing your tax return by starting as early as possible, Jeff was able to point out a few last minute deductions that you can pick up after December 31st: “Do you qualify for a deductible IRA or would a Roth be better. Can you contribute to a SEP?” He suggests looking into your IRA options if you’re still searching for deductions.
Jeff also notes that there are a few extra things to consider this year, if you’ve been affected by the current economic situation. Jeff says, “Sit down with a tax pro if you may lose your house. Congress passed a law that wipes out any taxes on debt discharge income on a principal home. But, you have to do it right and file the appropriate forms.” He also pointed out that if you’ve refinanced your mortgage, you can deduct any points you pay over the life of the refinance. You can even deduct any unamortized points on your original refinance if you refinance a second time.
“The laws are in flux and are changing as you read this. For example, now the first $2,400 received in unemployment benefits escapes tax. You can get a $1,000 deduction for real estate taxes even if you take the standard deduction. For 2009, you can deduct sales tax on a new car even if you don’t itemize. If you don’t know the rules, you’re going to have a hard time playing the game,” says Jeff. He makes it clear that if you aren’t staying up to date on the changes in tax laws, you’re going to have a hard figuring out your taxes.
Getting Ready for Next Year
You can make your 2009 tax return easier by starting now. The secret to making tax season simple is setting up a system to document both your income and your deductible expenses throughout the year and keep it up to date. Jeff described one system his clients have been known to use: “For substantiation, I have clients who throw all their checks and receipts in a box. Once every month or so they sit down and put those checks and receipts into envelopes with tax classification. So, there’d be an envelope for contributions, investment expenses etc. At the end of the year, they add them up, don’t double count, and put the number outside the envelope. Those are the numbers they give me for their tax returns. And, they never have to fear an audit. An audit can only ask them to substantiate the numbers on the return. They already have the backup available in each envelope!” It doesn’t matter exactly what system you use, though, as long as you have one in place — and you keep it up to date throughout the year.
If you have a question about your taxes, Jeff Schnepper is MSN.com’s Tax Expert. You can find him at money.msn.com, where he answers questions every day. In addition to his MSN columns, Jeff is the author of How to Pay Zero Taxes, which is now in its 16th edition, as well as several other finance and tax-related books.