Countdown to Tax Day

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VIA: MSN.com

It’s time to start thinking about getting those taxes done. Maybe you’re in a panic. Not to worry. Just follow Schnepper’s 15 steps to getting your taxes done, and you’ll be much happier. Ready? Here they are:

Get serious. Unless you’re focused, you’re going to see that receipt six times rather than the once you need. This is all mental now. Schedule a time to get to work and commit to that time. Then . . .

Get started. Remember that commitment to get to work? Keep it! This step requires action. Get your pencil and take the blank forms out of the envelope where you’ve been hiding them, praying that the tax fairies would make them go away. My father reminds me of the old Brooklyn proverb, “A trip of a thousand miles begins with a traffic jam.” Get in that “jam,” and your tax return will begin to jell. Now . . .

Get organized. Something has to go on those returns. Get your W-2s together to report wages, your 1099s to report interest and dividends, your 1099Bs for reporting stock and bond sales, and your 1098s for deducting your interest and taxes. The Internal Revenue Service and your accountant both want final numbers. It makes it easier for them and less painful financially for you. Bring either one a shopping bag full of receipts and you’re going to feel the pain . . . especially in your wallet.

Get informed. Have you been following all the changes the U.S. tax code has seen in the past decade? How about the multiple new tax bills passed just last year. You can now deduct the sales tax you paid in 2009 on a new car costing as much as $49,500 and as much as $500 ($1,000 on a joint return) in real estate taxes paid on your home even if you take the standard deduction! Got a kid in college? Have you used the “tuition and fees” deduction (.pdf file) that lets you deduct as much as $4,000 in tuition and fees off your 2009 taxes?

Even better, have you looked at the new American Opportunity Tax Credit, which can give you as much as $2,500 in tax savings? If not, get educated! While you’re getting enlightened, don’t neglect the new tax credits on energy-efficient improvements to your home. And if you’re a new homebuyer (one who hasn’t owned a principal residence for the last three years), you can get a refundable credit of 10% of the purchase price, up to $8,000, on a new principal residence. If you’ve been in your home for five of the last eight years, you can purchase a new principal residence and qualify for a 10% credit of up to $6,500.

If you’re “tax simple,” the IRS can actually do the return for you, or you can have your return done online — sometimes even for free. Alternatively, if you’re tax-savvy, do your own return after learning the new rules. A good place to start: the IRS’ absolutely free Publication 17 (.pdf file). It’s hundreds of pages of everything you need to know about your 2009 tax return and your planning for 2010. If that’s too much, go to a professional.

Get help. You might remove a splinter from your own finger, but you wouldn’t perform heart surgery on yourself. A trip to a tax professional should at least tell you what you’re missing. Don’t hesitate to ask for help; it’s deductible. But call for an appointment now! The later your accountant does your return, the more tired that tax preparer will be. You want your return done when she’s at her best.

Get status. Decide how you’re going to file. The lowest rates are with joint returns, but if there are potential high medical or miscellaneous deductions, married filing separate may yield a lower total tax. Do it both ways. Alternatively, a single mother may qualify for the head-of-household rates, which are better than the rates for filing as a single. Sometimes, when a joint return isn’t practical, even a married person with a dependent child can qualify for head-of-household rates, which are much better than married filing separate. You need to know the rules.

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