Claudia Buck

With tax-filing deadline coming right up, here are some tips

With the tax-filing deadline approaching, taxpayers have plenty of forms to use.
With the tax-filing deadline approaching, taxpayers have plenty of forms to use. AP

You don’t need us nagging you. So let’s call it a friendly reminder: The April 15 tax-filing deadline is just days away.

And the IRS and state Franchise Tax Board in California are standing by, only too happy to take your tax forms.

As of Friday, the FTB figures there are still about 6 million returns that haven’t yet been filed.

“All the people who are getting refunds or have simpler tax returns tend to file early,” said FTB spokesman Daniel Tahara. “Those who owe money or have difficult or more complex tax returns typically wait until the last minute to file.”

So far, roughly 11.4 million California returns have been filed, more than 90 percent electronically. As for refunds, Tahara said 7.5 million have already been issued, averaging $806 per return.

In the last-minute scramble to file by Wednesday’s deadline, many people with questions pick up the phone to call the IRS or FTB. That can be problematic, with wait times up to an hour. That’s why tax agencies are urging people to go online.

“So many people call in who don’t really need to talk with someone. A lot of the questions could have been answered on their own using our website,” said Tahara.

“The best piece of advice is to file electronically,” using software that is free for many taxpayers, said IRS spokesman David Tucker in Seattle. Most of today’s tax software, like TurboTax or TaxACT, “have a prompting system” that walks you through a series of questions to help determine your filing status, deductions and potential tax credits. “There’s no need for forms, no need to ask questions, because the software helps you answer those questions yourself,” said Tucker. “And it does all your calculations, so you don’t have math errors.”

Many taxpayers, he noted, can use FreeFile programs, free from IRS-approved major tax software companies for those with incomes below $60,000. For higher incomes, the IRS has Free File Fillable forms to quickly file online.

For those who enrolled in health care through the Affordable Care Act, there was a new wrinkle in this year’s reporting requirements. For most taxpayers, it’s simply a matter of checking a box on their tax return that they have health coverage. Those who bought insurance through Covered California or the federal marketplace must include a 1095A form, which was sent to them. But there have been errors on some forms. Last month, the IRS offered some relief, noting that affected taxpayers do not need to file an amended return. “This is true even if additional taxes would be owed based on the new information,” the IRS stated on March 20.

Can’t file? With California, there’s an automatic six-month extension until Oct. 15. With the IRS, you have to file an official Form 4868 to request a six-month extension. (It can be filed online at irs.gov.)

But, in either case, you still have to pay what you owe. The extension is only for filing the tax paperwork, not for skipping the payment.

“If you know you will owe, you want to send in something, just to avoid a penalty,” said FTB’s Tahara. To get a quick estimate of what you owe, he recommends using the online tax calculator on the FTB’s website.

And lastly, if you’re paper-filing a return, skip the staples. “Everyone laughs at that tip, but it does help,” said FTB’s Tahara. “We’re trying to go paperless, but when (taxpayers) file paper returns, we scan them to store an electronic image. If we don’t catch all the staples, the return gets jammed in our machines.”

Instead, he said, “Please, just use paper clips.”

Call The Bee’s Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968 or read her Personal Finance columns at sacbee.com/claudiabuck.

April 15 tax deadline: Where to get help

Franchise Tax Board: Answers to basic tax questions are at (800) 852-5711, weekdays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. But note: Wait times can be up to an hour or more. Faster service is through Live Chat online at ftb.ca.gov.

IRS: Fastest service is at www.irs.gov, including the “Interactive Tax Assistant” and “Tax Trails” feature. Or call (800) 829-1040, but wait times can be lengthy.

The Sacramento IRS office at 4330 Watt Ave. is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Staffers can answer basic questions, take payments or accept a tax return. They do not do tax preparation. The Sacramento office also has a “self-assistance” computer kiosk with an IRS employee to assist in navigating the IRS website.

Free tax-filing help: To find community locations for free tax-preparation help by ZIP code, go to www.irs.gov or use the AARP’s locator guide. Or call the IRS at (800) 906-9887 or AARP at (888) 227-7669. Most locations offer Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs. You’ll need to bring ID, last year’s tax return, W-2s and other income statements.

Source: Bee research

Ease the pain: Tax-day freebies

Some retailers and restaurant chains are offering April 15 deals to take the sting out of paying taxes. Check to be sure your location is participating. Here’s a sampling:

Boston Market: Buy one meal, get a second for free.

Cinnabon: Free bite-sized cupcakes from 6 to 8 p.m. in mall locations.

Hard Rock Café: Free burger, sandwich or salad to anyone who stands up and sings in front of fellow diners, from 5 to 7 p.m.

Mimi’s Cafe: Buy one lunch or dinner entree, get second one free with coupon.

Office Depot: Free shredding for up to 2 lbs. of paper with officedepot.com coupon.

P.F. Chang’s: A 15 percent discount on food, dine-in or take out.

Source: UltimateCoupons.com

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