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Gerri Willis Commentary:
Top Tips by Gerri Willis Column archive
Time's almost up, tax filers!
5 Tips: Get your paperwork in order by Saturday and remember to file for an extension if you need more time.
By Gerri Willis, CNNMoney.com contributing columnist

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Calling all procrastinators! You have five days to file your tax return.

If you've been dawdling up until now, it's time to start hunkering down. Five tips is here to help you with your last minute tax tips.

1. AMT: Are you at risk?

More and more people are falling prey to the Alternative Minimum Tax. This year, the AMT will hit about 3.6 million taxpayers. That's up from 2.9 million last year, according to the Taxpayer Institute.

This tax tends to hit large families and those who pay high state and local taxes. If you're married and your combined income is more than $110,000, watch out! You may be at risk. If you're single making $75,000 a year, you should also crunch the numbers. Other warning signs: You made a healthy profit when you sold your home, or you've sold some stock.

Figuring out if you owe the Alternative Minimum Tax, (even if you don't) can add 6 hours to your tax-preparation time if you do it on paper. It amounts to filling out a whole new tax form.

And in fact, it is. The AMT works as a second system of taxation that runs parallel to the regular income tax. If you owe more under the alternative tax than the regular tax, you pay the higher amount.

Under the AMT, your taxable income will be larger because you cannot take deductions for state and local taxes or property taxes. Only a handful of deductions, including those for home mortgage interest and charitable contributions, are allowed. For an estimate of your possible AMT tab, visit the IRS's AMT Assistant at www.irs.gov/app/amt.

2. Crunch it online

It could take you up to 16 hours to prepare your taxes by hand, according to the IRS. And good luck getting an accountant this late in the game (especially considering the day before the deadline is Easter Sunday and Passover)!

Your next move: go online. Tax preparation software claims you can be done in four hours. And if you're tech savvy, this should be a breeze. Here are some online software programs you should consider: www.turbotax.com and www.taxcut.com.

But even if you are filing online, you don't want to wait until the last minute. There may be a delay between the time you hit "send" and the time your info is received at the IRS offices. That's because everyone is using the Internet and this creates a logjam of users and ultimately slows down the programs, according to Eric Smith of the IRS. But you can breathe a sigh of relief if you get a confirmation e-mail from the IRS stating they've received your return.

3. Help for hurricane victims

If you suffered from Hurricane Katrina, you automatically have until August 28th to get your return in and pay your taxes. To figure out what areas qualify for this automatic extension, go to the IRS's Web site at IRS.gov.

If you live outside the disaster areas, but you need relief from filing and payment deadlines, call the IRS disaster hotline at 1-866-562-5227. If you need help filing your taxes, the IRS is providing free assistance. For more information, call 1-800-829-1040. And of course, if you're still trying to piece together your financial life.

If you're looking for your previous tax records, file form 4506 to request copies of them. On the forms, make sure you write "HURRICANE KATRINA" in red letters across the top of the forms to have them completed more quickly and to have the normal user fee waived.

4. Get an extension

If you just don't think you'll be able to get in your tax return by 11:59 pm on Monday, file for an extension. If you don't, you'll be paying a penalty of 5 percent a month on any unpaid balance you owe to the government.

This year, you can file one form (Form 4868) and get an automatic six-month extension. Check out www.irs.gov/efile if you want to file for an extension online. You can get an extension by phone or over the Internet if you pay taxes by credit card. But remember, this is an extension of time to file, not pay. So you'll have to estimate how much you owe to Uncle Sam and send in the check by Monday.

A good rule of thumb to figuring out how much you might owe is to see what you paid last year, according to Mark Luscombe of tax publisher CCH Inc.

"You shouldn't be too off base," he says. About 9 million filers took advantage of extensions last year, according to the IRS.

5. An extra day for Northeast filers

This year, you have two extra days to file your return since the 15th falls on a Saturday. But there's extra good news if you live in the Northeast. Residents of Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia have until April 18th to file their tax return.

That's because the IRS has a processing center in Massachusetts, which recognizes April 17th, Patriot's Day, as a state holiday in Massachusetts. By law, tax filing and payment deadlines that fall on a Saturday, Sunday or legal holiday are considered timely if met on the next business day.


Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. Send your questions, your comments and your own ideas to us at 5tips@cnn.comTop of page

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