The IRS tax filing deadline looms large in American life, with steep penalties for failure to file and the ominous risk of auditing for filers who make omissions or errors. And while the U.S. tax code is notoriously complex, there is affordable and even free help available for those who need assistance filing their taxes correctly.
Turn to the Tax Pros
If you just don’t know where to begin, there are always two excellent options for filing taxes: tax preparation software and retail tax preparation services.
Tax preparation software is best for filers who have an internet-connected computer or smartphone and a basic familiarity with important tax documents. Most programs available today are excellent at walking filers through the process in detail, ensuring that important declarations or valuable deductions don’t get missed.
If you made less than $66,000 in 2017, you also qualify for free filing software from a range of companies that are approved by the IRS. You can begin this process directly from the IRS website. If your income was above $66,000, take a few minutes to read online reviews comparing tax software to help you decide which program is right for you. Filing costs associated with most of these programs are less than $50.
Filers who aren’t able to file electronically, need extra assistance or have more complicated returns may be better served by a retail tax preparation business. This is generally a more expensive option, but it can help eliminate stress and uncertainty because a professional will be able to walk you through each step of the process. Many tax preparers offer the option to deduct their fees from your refund, allowing you to get tax assistance at no upfront cost.
Gather Your Tax Documents
Even the clearest tax guidance won’t do you any good if you don’t have the proper documents. It’s best to keep all of your necessary paperwork in one place, adding each form and receipt as you collect it.
Some of these documents may not apply in your specific case, but here is a brief list of the most common and important documents you’ll need to do your taxes:
- W-2 form from your employer
- 1099-G form if you’re unemployed
- Forms detailing retirement income (1099-R), Social Security income (1099-SSA), investment interest (1099-INT) and dividends (1099-DIV)
- Forms showing interest paid on student loans (1098-E) and mortgages (1098)
- If you intend to itemize, receipts for deductible expenses like business expenses, medical expenses and charitable donations
File Taxes on Time
Filers face penalties for missing the tax deadline, so filing on time is key. The tax deadline is April 15 most years, but everyone gets a couple extra days this year. The 15th falls on a Sunday and April 16 is Emancipation Day, a work holiday in Washington D.C. That means you have until 11:59 p.m. on April 17 to file your taxes electronically, and if you’re filing taxes by mail, your return must be postmarked by the 17th.
If you can’t file your taxes on time, you should at least apply for an extension before the tax deadline. You can do so electronically on the IRS website using Form 4868.
What About Tax Reform?
Congress passed a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code late last year, but none of those changes apply to the 2017 tax year, so you don’t need to prepare for major differences just yet.
Expect your taxpaying experience to be different in early 2019, however. You may find yourself in a different tax bracket, depending on your income level. If you itemized this year, there’s a chance you’ll save more money next year by taking the standard deduction, which has roughly doubled. If you have children, you’ll benefit from a larger child tax credit.
There are numerous other differences, so even if you’re in the habit of filing on your own taxes, next year might be a good time to enlist the help of a tax preparation professional to make sure you’re keeping up with the changes.
Don’t forget — tax day is April 17, 2018. Happy filing!