Claudia Buck

Personal Finance: Tax preparers ready for April 15 deluge

Published: Sunday, Apr. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 14, 2013 - 7:54 am

Pity the poor tax preparers.

This time of year, they're busily crunching numbers, working hellaciously long days and too many weekends to count. Trying to get America's taxpayers paid up and in by Monday's April 15 tax-filing deadline is, well, taxing.

And this year, it's been especially excruciating.

"Every tax season has its own personality. Some are early. Some are late. But this one: It's been pretty brutal," said Guy Crouch, a Sacramento CPA who specializes in handling gay and lesbian tax issues.

Normally, Crouch said, he doesn't start working Sundays until late in the season. This year? His seven-day-a-week schedule started in mid-February.

Likewise, "We're swamped," said Randy Warshawsky, a longtime tax preparer and board member of the California Tax Education Council, who's been working seven days a week for several months. The enrolled agent, owner of The Tax Man firm in San Jose, said it's one of the worst seasons he's seen in more than 25 years in business. Even with adding an extra employee this year, "We're still working overtime."

Blame it on political wrangling that delayed the start of the official tax-filing season this year.

Congress' last-minute fix for the so-called "fiscal cliff" was not enacted until January, which sent the IRS scrambling to update and rejigger its computer programs to accommodate the tax changes. It also meant tax software companies, like TurboTax, were delayed getting their product into the hands of do-it-yourself taxpayers. The result: the start of the tax-filing season was delayed more than a week to Jan. 30.

And even then, thousands of returns couldn't be filed until February or early March because IRS processing computers weren't ready to handle certain tax forms and deductions.

But IRS and state Franchise Tax Board officials say they've essentially caught up.

"It did initially put us behind. Considering that most people couldn't start filing until the middle of February, we figured we'd have a big backlog" by now, said state FTB spokesman Daniel Tahara.

As of Thursday, the FTB said, about 10.7 million California state income returns had been filed, a decrease of 2.4 percent from 11 million in the same period last year.

"We're almost completely caught up," said Tahara. "It should be business as usual going forward."

Similarly, the IRS says it expects the typical rush of down-to-the-deadline filers will make up for the slow start. "The IRS is prepared to handle the expected last-minute filing volume," said IRS spokesman Richard Panick.

As of April 5, the IRS was reporting a dip in the number of returns received so far, down 3.4 percent, from 99.9 million to 96.5 million, compared with a year ago.

Perhaps not surprisingly, visits to the IRS website, presumably by taxpayers seeking information, jumped 22 percent from a year ago, to 312.2 million.

The average IRS refund this year is down slightly, to $2,755. The average state refund so far this year: $787.

In most cases, the IRS says, taxpayers will receive their refunds within 21 days.

If you've waited until this weekend to start assembling your taxes, you've got until midnight Monday to get the job done. Both the IRS and FTB expect their website traffic to get a boost from taxpaying procrastinators.

On Monday, the April 15 filing deadline, help is available on both IRS and FTB phone lines.

But be prepared to wait – and wait – on hold. "It's anywhere from 1.5 to two hours. No joke," said Tahara, who noted that taxpayers can leave a call-back number to avoid sitting on hold.

A faster option: the FTB's "Live Chat" feature on its website, www.ftb.ca.gov. "It's the same staff (answering questions) but it's an instant message system," said Tahara. "You can get connected in a minute or so, especially if it's a general question," he noted.

For procrastinators, most tax-preparation firms and a number of free tax-filing centers are taking walk-in customers Monday.

Jim Hooker, general manager of six Jackson Hewitt offices in Elk Grove and south Sacramento, said he's staying open until 8 p.m. – or later, depending on the line of stragglers.

"At this point, if people haven't got it together, I recommend they file an extension." (For tips on requesting a six-month tax extension, see box at left.)

But, he warns, don't make the mistake of thinking you can put off paying what you owe by April 15. Taxpayers who take advantage of the six-month delay in filing – until Oct. 15 – still have to pay up by Monday, or get hit with interest and possible "failure-to-file" penalties.

Hooker described a client who cashed out a $300,000 401(k) account to buy a house in Elk Grove and intends to file for a six-month extension. Due to that unexpected boost in income, she owes "about 20 grand in taxes."

If she waits until Oct. 15 to pay her tax bill, he noted, she could accumulate another $4,000 or more in interest and penalties.

For low-income tax filers, sites like the Broadway Career Center in Sacramento will take walk-ins on Monday.

"Normally, we close at 4 p.m.," said Mary Garoza, who oversees the center's IRS-trained volunteer tax service for low-income and the elderly. "But if I've got a line, I'm staying till the last person gets through the door."

What you don't want to be is the person who shows up on Tuesday, the day after April 15.

"We probably get 10 people every year who walk in on April 16 and want to file an extension," said Hooker, the Jackson Hewitt office manager. "I tell them: 'Dude, you should've been here yesterday. That boat has sailed.' "

LAST-MINUTE TAX HELP

On Monday, there's still time to get your tax questions answered. Here's how:

IRS

• The Sacramento office at 4330 Watt Ave. is open Monday with extended hours from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

• For other IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers statewide, go to www.irs.gov.

• For help by phone, call (800) 829-1040 (individuals) or (800) 829-4933 (businesses), from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

• To find free tax-filing help from a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) or Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) center, call (800) 906-9887 or go to irs.gov and search for "Free Tax Return Preparation"; you can find locations by ZIP code. VITA and TCE help is free to those with incomes below $51,000.

FRANCHISE TAX BOARD

• For help by phone, call (800) 852-5711 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Be warned: Wait times can be up to two hours. For faster answers to general tax questions, use the FTB's online "Live Chat" feature at www.ftb.ca.gov.

• For walk-in help, the FTB's Sacramento field office at 3321 Power Inn Road is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can pick up forms, e-file a return, drop off a paper return or make a tax payment.

NEED MORE TIME?

• You can request a six-month extension – until Oct. 15 – to file your IRS tax return. But it's not an extension to pay what you owe. If you don't pay at least a portion by April 15, you will incur interest and possible penalties, up to 25 percent.

• If e-filing an extension request, use Free File at www.irs.gov. It must be filed by midnight, April 15.

• If filing a paper request, use IRS Form 4868 ("Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return.") The form, available at IRS offices or on the IRS website, must be postmarked by April 15.

• Don't file an extension if your paperwork is ready, but you can't pay the full amount. Instead, file your return and pay as much as possible to minimize penalty and interest charges. For the rest, apply online for an installment payment plan or use Form 9465. If you cannot make payments due to financial hardship, call the IRS at (800) 829-1040 to discuss options.

• For California taxes, a six-month extension until Oct. 15 is automatic if you don't file a return. But just like the IRS, if you don't pay what you owe by April 15, you'll face interest and penalties.

Call The Bee's Claudia Buck, (916) 321-1968. Read her Personal Finance blog, www.sacbee.com/ personalfinanceblog.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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