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Taxes: Last chance battle plan
Time is running out -- here's a punch list.
April 15, 2002: 10:43 AM EDT
By Leslie Haggin Geary, CNN/Money Staff Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - OK procrastinators, you can't put it off any longer. Your taxes are due by midnight tonight. (If you live in Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan or Rhode Island, rest easy -- you have until Tuesday.)

While it's always nice to plan ahead, there's no reason why you have to suffer any more than the guys who filed oh, way back in February. In fact, there are ways to cut through the clutter without losing your sanity, making dumb mistakes or triggering an audit.

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In fact, it might assure you to know that plenty of those early filers may have been just a little too hasty. In addition to other blunders, the IRS says some 4 million early filers have messed up the reporting of last year's $300 refund checks (remember those?) .

You don't have to be one of them.

Need a little more incentive to buckle down? Consider this: the average refund for the 2001 tax year has been averaging a cool $2,367 -- $206 better than last year. But before you can grab that cash you gotta get to work.

First things first -- get an extension: If there's just now way you're going to hit the deadline, and you need a get-out-of-jail free card, you can file for an automatic four-month extension. You'll use Form 4868 which you can download from the IRS web site or call 888-796-1074.) You'll be in good company. Roughly 7.9 million filers -- about 6 percent -- file for an automatic extension, according to the IRS. For more details about extensions see "Are you a tax procrastinator?"

Work fast -- but avoid common mistakes.

If you're under pressure, consider filing electronically. That's because the odds of making a mistake increase when we're under pressure, and tax software can catch you when you stray off course. In fact, mistake-rates on paper returns run about 20 percent; e-returns have an error rate of less than 1 percent.

If technological help isn't an option, be aware of the basics:

  • Sign and date your return. Sounds simple, but yes, people do forget.
  • Choose the right filing status. You may wish you were married to Mrs. Right (or Prince Charming, as it were) but ticking off the wrong status will hurt you. In fact, last year 100,000 filers should have checked off "single" but didn't.
  • Use your correct name. It doesn't matter if everyone calls you "Mister Slick." The name of your 1040 should match the name on your Social Security card. If your name doesn't match, you may lose part of your refund.
  • Be aware of a new line on the tax form called "Rate Reduction Credit." It has to do with the tax rebate checks that were mailed last year, and it appears on line 47 of your 1040, line 30 on Form 1040A and line 7 on Form 1040EZ. If you got a rebate check for the full amount (that's $300 for singles; $500 for heads of households and $600 for married couples filing jointly) --- put a ZERO on the rate reduction line. If you didn't get a check, or you got less than you think you were owed, you'll fill out a worksheet to determine how much to claim.

Check out "Doh! Ten tax bloopers to avoid" for the complete rundown of other common mistakes.

Avoid an audit.

The problem with rushing is that it increases the odds of making the kind of errors that lead to an audit. This year, there's more reason to tread carefully. The IRS, which has typically scrutinized fewer than 1 percent of tax returns, is revving up to audit more 1040s than before. And some 50,000 taxpayers will be plucked for a new program to help the agency find out where people are most likely to, er, fudge their numbers. You can save a lot of hassle by avoiding common traps.

  • Make sure you report all your income. Have you reported information listed on every single W-2 wage slip, interest dividend, 1098 mortgage interest form? Make sure you aren't missing anything.
  • Itemized deductions over 30 percent of your adjusted gross income are risky because it will appear like you had little cash left to pay for basics -- like groceries -- so don't be greedy when filling out a Schedule A.
  • Back up your Schedule C deductions if you're self-employed or a freelancer. For example, it's going to be a tough sell claiming that you can write off all your auto costs because the only time you use your car is for work. A mileage log can back your case.

For more advice on how to justify your numbers -- and to sidestep pitfalls -- see "5 ways to avoid an audit."

Don't have the cash to pay your taxes? No problem.

We're not going to lie. There's nothing worse than doing your taxes only to find out that you owe big time -- and you don't have the cash to cover the tab. But the IRS is relatively cooperative when it comes to getting paid back. In fact, you don't have to pay your bill in full by Monday.

If you're just a little short, try to cover 90 percent of your balance. You'll avoid interest late-payment penalties of .05 percent a month, but you will owe interest on the unpaid balance. The IRS interest rate is currently 6 percent, and is changed every quarter. Filers who can't pay up to 90 percent of their tab will owe penalties and fees, which can be reduced if they sign up for an installment payment plan. For details on payment plans see "Dear Uncle Sam: I'm broke."

Grab all your deductions.

April 15 isn't just the last day to file taxes. It's also the last day to make 2001 contributions into a variety of tax-sheltered accounts, so if you've got extra cash, don't blow the opportunity to invest in your future.

You can put up to $2,000 into a traditional or Roth IRA for 2001. If you've already made a contribution for 2001, gear up for 2002. This year you can put up to $3,000 ($3,500 if you're over 50) into these accounts. "Don't blow off your IRA" can help you get started if you haven't yet opened up one of these retirement funds.

Education IRAs can be funded up to $500 for 2001 -- but that limit jumps to $2,000 this year and beyond. What's more, EIRA dollars can now be spent on elementary and secondary school.

Fund a state-sponsored 529 college savings plan. You can put up to $50,000 in any given tax year without paying gift tax if you don't make subsequent gifts to that account for another four years. And some states, like New York, give their residents tax breaks for contributing to their plans.

If you aren't sure which college-savings plan to fund, see "Beat the financial aid trap" for help.

Done? Take a bow -- and get ready for next year.

Finished? Give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back (or a nap), then take a few minutes to get ready for next year. If you're like most taxpayers, you'll likely get a refund.

You may want to blow it on a trip to Bora Bora, but why not consider options that could end up putting even more money in your pocket? "Make the Most of your refund" has more lucrative ideas.

If you really don't want to deal with taxes again, take a look at "How to hire a tax pro."

And don't wait to see an adviser. A real expert will do a lot more than fill out a 1040 on your behalf; he or she will help you strategize so you can take advantage of the new tax law, which contains a slew of new tax breaks that kick in this year. To get an idea of the kinds of perks that are in store, check our roundtable discussion with some of the nation's top tax experts in "Tax Guide 2002."  Top of page