I have some nerve just showing up here like this. It’s been three long months since my last post and there’s nothing I can say to make up for it. Life took on a life of its own and my ability to blog on sassy financial topics took a back seat. That’s all I got. So while I’m not in full swing yet, I did want to update a previous post related to one of our favorite and soon to be due activities - taxes. Thanks for bearing with me…I’ll be back on track soon!
When people think of personal finance, income tax planning rarely bubbles to the top. Thanks to my good friend Felicia, I was reminded that tax season is just around the corner. Her question was, how long should I keep tax returns? My answer – 3 years is recommended because you’re typically safe from audit within the 3 years after you filed, but if you have complicated taxes, it’s good to hold on to your returns for 6 years.
Then her question got me thinking…what should folks be thinking about to prep for filing taxes?
Q: Do I have to file?
A: Depends on your filing status, age and total taxable income in 2012. For example, if you are under 65 and going to file as single, you have to file if your total income is more than $9,750. But you should always file if you had any federal taxes withheld from wages or a pension, was self-employed, can qualify for tax credits, or owe taxes on tips or retirement plan income. There are additional conditions; IRS has the specifics - www.irs.gov (Charts A, B and C of the 1040 instruction book to be exact).
Q: What is considered taxable income?
A: 1) Earned income (wages and tips) and unearned income like dividends, interest, disability payments, unemployment, severance pay and securities gain. Gambling winnings, military allowance, jury duty fees and alimony also count as income (child support does not).
Q: Should I prepare my own taxes or hire a professional?
A: If you are organized and comfortable with numbers you can do it yourself. I’m a fan of tax prep software like TurboTax but a pad, paper and the free IRS forms work too. If you get overwhelmed or have complicated circumstances – own a business or had a change in marital status – you may want to consult a professional.
Q: What if I need a professional but can’t afford one?
A: If in 2012 your household had total income less than $51,000, you qualify to receive free tax preparation services at any Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) site. To locate your nearest VITA site, call 1-800-906-9887.
If you don’t qualify for free assistance, talk to your family, friends or coworkers about the services or professionals they use. But don’t just go off their recommendations. Schedule a consultation and ask questions before you give them all your personal info: what’s their fee structure (flat or base plus depending on complexity); what “extras” like audit protection or electronic filing is included; and, will they be available throughout the year for any follow-up questions or advice?
When comparing fees, it may be helpful to note that the National Society of Accountants in their 2012 fee study reports the following average prices charged by their members:
- Average for 1040 with Schedule A and state return: $246
- Average for 1040 with state return with no itemized deductions: $143
The average prices at franchised tax offices were:
- H&R Block: $192 per return
- Liberty Tax Service: $173 per return
While not inexpensive, a thorough and accurate return (plus peace of mind) may be worth the dough. (But stay away from the ones that promise a big refund that you can receive immediately. Totally no bueno. See also Why Pay For A Refund When You Can Get It For Free).
Q: What forms do I need?
A: There may be one or several depending on your situation. Here are some common ones mailed to you in the beginning of the year.
- W-2, from an employer that shows wages paid and taxes and other deductions
- 1099, the miscellaneous income statement: interest (1099-I), dividends (1099-DIV), contractor income (1099-MISC), social security income (1099-SSA)
- 1098, mortgage interest paid
- 1098-E, student loan interest paid
- 1098-T, tuition statement
- K-1, if you have income from a partnership, small business or trust. (Note, this is an IRS form you complete.)
- Your receipts, cancelled checks or list of tax-related expenses. If you don’t know what’s tax related, do like l do and print all expenses for the year and figure out which are tax-related as you answer the questions in the software/tax booklet or from the preparer.
Q: When can I file?
A: You must file by April 15, 2013. Savings To Inve$t has a great post on tax dates and deadlines: http://www.savingtoinvest.com/2012/12/when-can-i-file-my-taxes-in-2013-and-other-key-tax-filing-extension-and-refund-dates.html.
If you have more questions, most tax professionals will answer questions for free before they get really busy, the library typically has previous year tax books and IRS publications, and of course, there’s always Google. Take advantage and get started before the clock strikes midnight on April 15. Taxes don’t have to be taxing (pun totally intended).