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It's not too late to get taxes in

By Kathy Jefcoats

Jack Bruce has a word of advice for Henry and Clayton county residents who have yet to file a 2003 tax return.

Hurry.

"The only thing you have to do is have everything in order," said Bruce, a tax preparer in Jonesboro. "Most people wait until the last minute because they owe taxes or they put off what they don't want to do. Or they just hate taxes."

April 15 is fast approaching and this is the last weekend before the big deadline for filing both a federal and state tax return. Returns must be postmarked by midnight April 15 or taxpayers face fines and penalties.

A tax extension can be filed, extending the deadline to Aug. 15 but Bruce said he sees no advantage in delaying the inevitable.

"You still have to pay any owed taxes by April 15 even if you file an extension," he said. "So it makes no sense to file for an extension as far as I am concerned."

Most individual returns are fairly basic. Taxpayers get a W-2 or Form 1099 showing income and taxes withheld. The biggest question is usually whether to file a short or long form. Since a couple filing jointly can take a $9,500 standard deduction, it pays for them to itemize only if their deductions exceed that amount.

Itemized deductions include property and ad valorem taxes, cash or other contributions made to charity, medical bills if they exceed 7.5 percent of gross income, and business-related expenses.

Taxpayers should also remember to take any eligible Earned Income Credit, allowable for heads of household with at least one dependent child, depending upon income. But taxpayers with children will also have to claim that advance child credit check they got last summer.

"The government allows a $1,000 deduction per child," said Bruce. "But if you got a $400 check for that child last summer, you will only get credit for $600."

Greg Pace of the Eagle's Landing CPA firm of Robins Eskew Farmer and Jordan said the IRS has already reported that taxpayers filed without remembering to claim the credit.

"They said they have hundreds of thousands of errors through processed claims where people claimed the credit and forgot to reduce it by $400," said Pace. "If you don't remember how much you got, you can go to the IRS Web site and find it."

Pace said taxpayers can access www.irs.gov and follow the prompts about the child tax credit, input certain information and find out how much the summer check was for.

If a 2003 return has already been filed when a taxpayer realizes information was left off or needs to be corrected, an amended form can be filed – and doesn't have to be filed by April 15. Taxpayers who may need to file an amended return include those who filed early and then got a corrected Form 1099.

For example, Pace said some brokerage houses sent out Form 1099s – a form showing income – and had to send out corrected ones because the tax laws had changed.

"Just take that corrected Form 1099 to your tax preparer and let him determine whether or not an amended return should be filed," said Pace.

Taxpayers entitled to a refund usually file early in the year in order to get the check back as soon as possible. Electronic filing is popular and fast and refunds can come even faster that way, although not all returns qualify for electronic filing.

Because electronic filing ensures the IRS gets the return, some taxpayers file that way even if they owe money. Pace said they need to remember to send any taxes due by April 15.

"Electronically filed forms are processed more accurately and ensures the IRS gets the forms," he said. "But if you file that way, you need to remember to mail any balance due by April 15."

Taxpayers who can't pay owed taxes should still file by April 15, and Pace recommends filing a Form 9465, which requests an installment plan to repay those taxes.

"Go ahead and file even if you can't pay," said Pace.

Taxpayers can file on their own or pay someone such as Pace or Bruce to do it for them. The IRS Web site offers free help for taxpayers doing it themselves and other tax preparation firms such as H and R Block feature do-it-yourself filing on their Web sites, for a fee.

Tax forms can also be downloaded from the Internet, including Georgia state returns.

Some common mistakes to avoid include forgetting to sign the return, filing the wrong status and omitting the Social Security numbers of dependents. These mistakes can be corrected but will delay refunds. Taxpayers should also use enough postage to mail what could be multiple forms.

Taxpayers who wait until April 15 to mail the forms should consider sending them by certified mail to ensure timely filing and proof of receipt by the IRS.