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Get the jump on taxes

February 29, 2008

Aside from getting a root canal or visiting the DMV, few activities are more unpleasant than filing income taxes. It gets more complicated every year and what's worse, if you've put off organizing your paperwork until the last minute, you risk missing deadlines and making costly mistakes.

Here are a few tips to minimize the pain:

Meet all IRS deadlines. Postmark or electronically file your 2007 tax return no later than April 15. If you owe taxes and don't file on time, you'll be hit with a late-payment penalty of 4.5 percent of the tax owed for each partial or full month you're late, plus interest. As long as you meet the filing deadline - even if only to request an extension - the late-payment penalty drops to 0.5 percent plus interest.

Get organized. If you've just been dumping receipts in a shoebox, it might take awhile to sort everything out. Tax completion software packages like TurboTax (www.turbotax.com) and TaxCut (www.taxcut.com) can help you organize your records, as can guidebooks from companies like Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Jumpstart next year's paperwork by beginning to organize your financial files now. Visa's free personal financial management site, Practical Money Skills for Life, features an interactive, downloadable tool called My Budget Planner to help you categorize and track income and expenses (www.practicalmoneyskills.com/mybudget).

Know your deductions. Because the tax code changes every year, scan the IRS Website for updates before diving in (www.irs.gov/individuals). Many of your questions are likely answered in the Frequently Asked Questions section. Another good resource is Kiplinger.com's Taxopedia (www.kiplinger.com/taxcenter), a comprehensive list of allowable business and personal deductions.

Ask for help. If calculating your own taxes is too confusing or time-consuming, consider hiring a professional. Options include franchise tax preparation chains such as Jackson Hewitt, enrolled agents (tax professionals who've passed an IRS-administered exam), certified public accountants and tax attorneys.

Depending on your return's complexity and how well-organized your files are, professional help might cost less than $100 or many times that amount. However, a sharp preparer may be able to save you a bundle by finding credits or deductions you didn't know about. Don't be afraid to shop around and ask for estimates. But don't delay - many preparers are fully booked by mid-March.

Free assistance. If cost is an issue, several free tax-preparation assistance options are available for seniors, military and low- and middle-income taxpayers of all ages. The IRS sponsors two programs: the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE). Go to the IRS site above and click on Free Tax Return Preparation to see if you qualify and for information on finding assistance.

AARP's Tax-Aide program also provides free tax preparation from volunteers to low- and middle-income taxpayers, particularly those over age 60 (www.aarp.org/money/taxaide.) And military personnel and their families worldwide can get free assistance through a program overseen by the Armed Forces Tax Council and offered through VITA. Check at your base for details.

Avoid mistakes. People in a rush often fill in incorrect, illegible or incomplete identification information, forget to sign and date the return, don't attach needed documentation or make math errors. Double-check everything.

My best suggestion is don't wait until the last minute to file. Like death and the DMV, taxes are inevitable - better to just get it over with and move on to something more enjoyable.

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This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered health, legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.

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