Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tax Day

It's April 15th, and for many people, this is a desperate day. If you have delayed or put it off or couldn't spare the time or couldn't find the documents, today is the day when you have to act.

Either you file your Form 1040 tax return today or you file a Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time To File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. Form 4868 gives you until October 15th, no questions asked, to file your return. There is no penalty for filing within that extended period. Oh, but there is a catch. If you are going to owe taxes, you have to pay them with your application today. Otherwise, you'll pay interest on what is owed and a penalty for late paying, too. The good news is you can file for an extension via the Internet. But you should do it before midnight.

Or, you could just dig in and finish your taxes today.

I know the feeling of being in this final big hurry. One year I was so late getting our tax return together that my husband had to drive to another state to mail it--and he was the last one the police let into the line before they closed the mail drop. I also remember as a kid going in the car with my mother as she drove all the way into DC from the Maryland suburbs to drop the family tax return at the mailbox in front of the main post office near Union Station. Versions of these scenes will occur today. If you are the one heading out late tonight, my condolences.

Maybe next year you could make life easier on yourself and get your taxes finished sooner. There are volunteer sites across the nation where you can take all your tax questions in addition to getting your return prepared free of charge. Free e-file, too. These volunteer sites are not for everyone. If you run a small business and have inventory or employees, you need to look to a paid tax preparer. But if you have a job like delivering pizzas, where you are paid as an independent contractor, you can probably find a free tax preparing site that will handle your return. Even if you have a complicated tax situation, chances are that these sites can help you.

But don't wait until the last minute. That's self-induced stress you don't need. I won't pretend that income taxes are simple; they are not. Every year, the Federal tax rules get tinkered with, resulting in more confusion for us all. Often, state tax laws change, too. Before I do my tax preparer volunteering each year, I train in the new rules and then pass an exam, but I still struggle to remember all the changes.

It's a whole lot easier learning about these new rules in January than it is trying to learn them on the evening of April 15th. Desperation is not the proper mood in which to do taxes. If you handle yours early in the tax season, you'll be relaxed because you have plenty of time. This results in fewer errors. Many people do not realize that they can file their returns without mailing any payment until April 15th. The tax voucher, Form 1040-V, makes separating the return filing and the payment mailing easy. And of course you may pay by credit card these days.

On a day like today when you're down to the wire, it's easy to promise yourself that you won't let this happen next year. You'll get organized by March 15th instead, or maybe even February 15th. I hope you do, because if there's anything we volunteer tax preparers dislike, it's desperate, impatient people who have boxed themselves into a corner and now want that to be someone else's fault. We can't help you if you still haven't found all your documents. Or if you don't know the answers to the standard questions. Or if you have put this off as long as possible and now want us to hurry up and perform a miracle.

Nobody likes paying taxes; we get it. But since taxes are as inevitable as death, why kick and scream and procrastinate? The good news/bad news is that we get a do-over next year. We can aspire to handling our obligations better in 2011. Meanwhile, in only a few hours, the madness of tax day 2010 will be over.

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