April 15 –tax day – isn’t all that far away, and a lot of taxpayers are not sure how the recent action (or inaction) by Congress affects this year’s tax return. Not to worry, says master tax advisor Mary VanDersarl, who has been doing taxes for H&R Block for 25 years. But there are some changes to the 2017 tax code, so do your homework before filing.
Millions of Americans save money by doing their own taxes, and if the job is simple, that’s fine, she says. The online tax options are often easy for those with a basic return. But even simple returns can have costly mistakes. “We see errors to the good and to the bad,” she says. “We see people taking deductions they’re not entitled to, and people not taking deductions they should.”
Here are some tips from a tax preparer who has seen it all:
Get your filing status right.
“I’ve had people who have made mistakes as simple as misidentifying their filing status,” VanDersarl said. “We had a man who filed as ‘head of household’ and put his wife down as a dependent because she didn’t have a job. They did much better when they filed jointly.”
Who gets to claim whom?
There’s often confusion in blended families as to who gets the child tax credit, she says. That depends on where the children live, whether or not the adults in the household are legally married, and many other factors. Such situations may require professional help.
Sometimes employees spend money out of their own pockets for their jobs and instead of filing for reimbursement from the company, try to write it off on their taxes.
“That’s the kind of thing that will get you audited,” VanDersarl says.
Everyone should keep good records, but self-employed people must keep meticulous records, including mileage logs and every receipt for every expense that’s allowed.
Don’t file too early
People are so anxious to get their refunds, they file before they get all their W-2 or 1099 forms from employers. Re-filing can be a pain. If you have not received all your forms by the end of February, you may contact the IRS for assistance.
Be specific about charitable contributions. If you donate money to a charity, try to get a letter of acknowledgement.. If you donate goods to a charity, like Goodwill Industries, ask for a receipt. And list everything in the donation (five pair of women’s jeans, one set of window curtains, etc.) and try to get an estimated value on each item (like how much it might bring at the second-hand store). Keep that along with your receipt. You can find a good chart of probable values if you go online to Goodwill.org.
The last detail
And if filing by snail-mail, don’t forget to sign the form. “You wouldn’t believe how many people do that,” she says. “The IRS will send it right back to you.”
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