J.K. Lasser's Online Taxes

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A FAST, ACCURATE, EASY WAY TO FILE YOUR TAXES

The best guide to making tax season and year-round planning easier and cheaper is finally here! With a growing number of taxpayers filing online and the recently passed Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, J.K. Lasser's Online Taxes is the perfect answer for all your online tax filing questions. Whether you're a beginner or experienced online tax filer, this practical guide provides accessible information ...

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Overview

A FAST, ACCURATE, EASY WAY TO FILE YOUR TAXES

The best guide to making tax season and year-round planning easier and cheaper is finally here! With a growing number of taxpayers filing online and the recently passed Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, J.K. Lasser's Online Taxes is the perfect answer for all your online tax filing questions. Whether you're a beginner or experienced online tax filer, this practical guide provides accessible information regarding the best tax resources on the Internet, including the IRS Web site. You will also learn how online tax tools offer practical tax strategies and advice at a fraction of what a consultant would cost. With step-by-step instructions on how to file electronically and helpful tips on the new tax law, this book makes filing your taxes simple. J.K. Lasser's Online Taxes will make April 15th seem like just another day.

Critical coverage will help you:
* Incorporate the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 into your electronic preparation
* Pinpoint tax resources on the Web to minimize the need for a consultant
* Compare electronic preparation products, including TurboTax and TaxCut
* Download necessary tax forms and file your taxes online
* File federal and state returns for individuals and small business owners

J.K. Lasser-Practical Guides for All Your Financial Needs
Please visit our Web site at www.jklasser.com

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Product Details

Meet the Author

BARBARA WELTMAN, an attorney, is a nationally recognized tax expert. She has written extensively on tax, finance, and estate planning. Weltman is the author of J.K. Lasser’s Finance and Tax for Your Family Business and J.K. Lasser’s New Rules for Small Business Taxes. She is quoted regularly in major publications, including the New York Times and Boardroom Reports, and is also featured on CNN and CNBC. Visit the author at www.bwideas.com.
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Read an Excerpt

The Basics of
Online Filing

Just as e-mail has eclipsed snail mail as the communication method of choice by millions of Americans, filing taxes electronically is growing in popularity over the old-fashioned mailing of returns. The IRS's e-file system allows you to file your return without having to mail it in. There are several sound reasons for this trend toward on-line filing-- convenience being just one of those reasons. The IRS has simplified online filing by eliminating the need to follow up with signature forms and W-2 forms-- allowing for totally paperless returns. Also, advancements in privacy protection have served to en-hance consumer confidence in using online filing.

If you're an e-filer or about to become one-- for your personal tax return or for business returns-- you should understand why this method of filing makes good sense. You stand to win in several ways-- most importantly by making tax filing just a little less of a hassle.

In this chapter you will learn about:

  • The advantages of online filing.
  • The scope of online filing.
  • Privacy concerns.
Advantages of Online Filing

You don't have to file your return electronically. There's no law mandating electronic filing. You can still file a paper return-- through the U. S. Postal Service or by means of a private carrier such as FedEx. But using e-file to submit individual income tax returns electronically offers several unique advantages over traditional paper returns sent through the mail or by private carriers.

Ease of Filing

Those using their home computers can file returns with the IRS 24-hours a day, seven days a week. No more long lines at the post office on April 15th. Those who lack transportation don't have to leave home to file their returns.

Filing electronically is simple to do yourself-- once you know how. Alternatively, if you don't have Internet access or still feel intimidated by doing it yourself or just don't want to do it yourself, you can use the services of a paid preparer who will submit your return for you-- for a fee (generally between $25 and $50, depending on your location and the complexity of your return).

There are now combination tax return preparation and electronic filing sites on the Internet that allow you both to prepare and file at one location. The great thing about this arrangement is that there's no software to purchase or to download-- you work directly through the Web. And the process may be entirely free in some circumstances. Even if you're required to pay, you only do so at the end of the process-- when you file your return. For example, at TurboTax for the Web, your return can practically prepare itself. This site can automatically retrieve your W-2 information about your wages and 1099 information about certain investments if your employer and financial institutions participate in the TurboTax program. Other on-line preparation/ filing sites boast that it can take under an hour to prepare and file your return-- something that used to take hours doing the old-fashioned way.

DID YOU KNOW
Nearly 40 million individuals filed their 2000 returns electronically. This accounts for more than one-third of all individual taxpayers-- but still a long way from Congress' goal of 80% by 2007. But 81% of those asked said they were so satisfied with e-filing that they'd do it again next year.

DID YOU KNOW
E-filing can be used whether you owe taxes or are due a refund. Two electronic payment options-- automatic withdrawal from a bank account or credit card-- enable payments to be made without the need for sending a personal check.

And you can file your federal and state income tax returns in one step-- both returns are usually e-filed with the IRS who, acting as an "electronic postman," then forwards the state return on to the appropriate state agency. In some states the transmitter routes the state return directly to the state agency instead of through the IRS. From the consumer's perspective, regardless of the technical way in which the state receives its return, the two returns-- federal and state-- are filed together, simplifying the filing process.

Accuracy

Filing electronically assures that the return you submit to the IRS contains all essential information necessary for processing. If something is missing or incorrect-- for example, a dependent's Social Security number-- the return is immediately rejected. This allows you to promptly correct the error and resubmit the return.

Software companies continually monitor their products for errors. You can download program updates to avoid any problems. Turbo-Tax stands behind its product 100% by agreeing to pay any penalty charged as a result of calculation errors in its program. Other soft-ware companies have similar guarantees.

Of course, assurance of accuracy on your return depends on the information you provide. For example, if you fail to include dividend income you received, the math on your return will be accurate, but the information is not correct. Only you, and not a computer program, can make sure that the information reported on the return is complete and correct.

DID YOU KNOW
The number one reason that a return is audited is a mathematical error picked up by IRS computers. Even worse, math errors can result in overpaying income taxes. About 21% of all returns prepared manually contain errors, compared with less than 2% on those returns prepared by computer-- and less than 1% of computer-generated returns filed electronically have any math errors.

Quicker Refunds

If you've overpaid your income taxes-- because there was too much withholding from your wages or overly generous estimated tax payments-- you can receive a refund more rapidly by e-filing. It's estimated that refunds on paper returns take an average of six to eight weeks-- even longer for returns filed around April 15th. But refunds on e-filed returns typically are made as quickly as two weeks from the date on which the return has been accepted by the IRS.

You can receive your refund even quicker-- a couple of days instead of a couple of weeks-- through a refund anticipation loan. This may be called a "Refund Advance" or some other term. But whatever it's called, it's really just a short-term loan that's being made to you. Intuit (TurboTax), H& R Block (TaxCut), and other companies work with banks to provide taxpayer refund anticipation loans up to $5,000 that put the funds into taxpayer bank accounts within two or three days of filing. There are no up-front costs for this loan-- the loan origination fees are subtracted from the loan proceeds (your refund) that are deposited in your account.

While there are no up-front costs, there are fees for this quick refund method and these fees can be relatively sizable. Except in unusual circumstances, you should not use this method of receiving your refund because of the costs involved. By simply waiting a few weeks, you receive all of your money from the U. S. Treasury and you don't incur any loan origination fees in the process.

DID YOU KNOW
There were about 80 million refunds on 2000 returns. The average refund to individuals for the 2000 tax year was $1,728. And nearly half of all individual filers received refunds.

DID YOU KNOW
Instead of receiving a refund check by mail and then having to deposit it in your bank account, you can shortcut the process by requesting that your refund be directly deposited in your account. Simply provide the necessary routing information on your return (your account number and other information) and the refund will be automatically deposited in your account.

Acknowledgment

Proof of filing is important for several reasons. It assures you that any refund due you is in progress-- you can anticipate its receipt to pay your bills, plan a vacation, or make an investment.

Proof that a return has been filed is also important in establishing a statute of limitations-- the time in which the IRS can audit your return. If the IRS says that no return has been filed and you lack proof to the contrary, then the IRS has an unlimited time to question your return and claim you owe back taxes-- whether or not you agree.

When filing a paper return, you can have proof that your return was filed by obtaining a registered or certified receipt from the U. S. Postal Service showing when the return was mailed. Proof of filing can also be a receipt from an authorized private delivery carrier providing the following services:

  • Airborne Express (Overnight Air Express Service, Next Afternoon Service, and Second Day Service).
  • DHL Worldwide Express (DHL "Same Day" Service and DHL USA Overnight).
  • Federal Express (FedEx Priority Overnight, FedEx Standard Overnight, and FedEx 2Day).
  • United Parcel Service (UPS Next Day Air, UPS Next Day Air Saver, UPS 2nd Day Air, and UPS 2nd Day A. M.)

DID YOU KNOW
The IRS has three years after your return is filed to assess additional taxes. When you file a return before the due date, however, the three-year period starts from the due date, generally April 15th for individuals.

Filing a paper return in this manner-- through the post office or an authorized private carrier-- means that the return is treated as filed when it is mailed (rather than on the date it is delivered). The cost for receipts from the post office or service from a private carrier can be a couple of dollars or more-- depending on the size of your return and the delivery method you select.

But with e-filing, the IRS provides proof within 48 hours of submission that the return has been received-- at no additional cost to you. You receive an acknowledgment in the form of an electronic date and time stamp receipt for the acceptance of your return. Once issued, the IRS cannot come back later on to claim it never received your return.

You can find out about e-filing your federal in-come tax return as well as e-filing other federal returns at the IRS web site (www. irs. gov). Throughout this book you will see a reference to this web site-- it's one of the more popular sites online, receiving more than 1.5 billion hits between January 1 and April 16, 2001.

Scope of Online Filing

Your individual income tax return can be filed electronically. Whether you file a short form-- Form 1040EZ or Form 1040A-- or the long form-- Form 1040-- you can use e-filing. (The filing of state income tax returns is discussed in Part 2 and the filing of business returns is discussed in Part 3.) Almost all additional forms and schedules that accompany the basic federal individual tax form can be filed electronically.

Paperless Returns

You can file a return electronically without having to affix your signature to the return or submit a follow-up signature form. You don't have to send in W-2 forms or other information returns showing federal income tax withholding. Your only electronic submission is your return.

CAUTION
Don't wait until April 15th to e-file. A return filed electronically is timely filed if it has the electronic date and time stamp as of April 15th. But since it can take up to 48 hours to receive an acknowledgment from the IRS, it is suggested that the return be submitted no later than April 13th in order to make sure it's not rejected and you miss the deadline.

SELF-SELECT PIN FOR E-FILE. The IRS lets you choose a personal identification number that, along with other information, replaces your signature. In effect, your self-select PIN for e-file becomes your tax signature. Some taxpayers, however, cannot use the self-select PIN and must follow up their electronic filing with certain submissions. The self-select PIN is explained in greater detail in Chapter 3.

Online Payment Options If you owe taxes, you don't have to send in a check for payment (although you still can if you want to). You now have other online payment options you can use to pay your taxes. And the IRS doesn't charge you anything extra for using these alternative payment methods.

  • Credit card payment-- you can authorize payment by Discover, MasterCard, or American Express (VISA does not participate in this tax payment program). TurboTax and TurboTax for Mac users can automatically pay by Discover Card when they e-file with this software. For all others, credit card payment is made through a telephone authorization or online through authorized credit card payment companies that charge a fee.
  • Bank account debit-- you can authorize that the tax be debited from your bank account by supplying the necessary bank information.

Payment methods and how to use them are discussed in greater detail in Chapters 2 and 3.

You Can't Use Online Filing If . . .There are now only a few situations in which you can't use e-filing for your personal income tax return.

DID YOU KNOW
In 2001, 231,000 income tax payments on 2000 returns were charged to a credit card-- 24% more than in 2000. The average tax payment charged was $3,085-- for a total amount of $712 million. The largest single charge was about $2.9 million!

  • You file your return after October 15, 2002 (the final extension deadline for 2001 returns). At present, this is the IRS cutoff for e-filing. However, this deadline may be extended in the future.
  • You need to file certain forms and schedules that aren't accepted electronically. To date, these include forms that require signatures by parties other than the taxpayer-- for example, Form 2120, Multiple Support Declaration, used to allocate the dependency exemption for a person who is supported by more than one individual (the supporter( s) who is not claiming the exemption must sign the declaration), Form 8283, Noncash Charitable Contributions, used for appraisals of property donations to charity in excess of a certain value, (the taxpayer needs the signature of an appraiser and the signature of the charitable organization in certain cases), and Form 8332, Release of Claim to Exemption for Child of Divorced or Separated Parents, used when the custodial parent waives the right to claim the exemption for the child (the non-custodial parent/ taxpayer needs the signature of the custodial parent).
Telephone Filing

As part of the e-file system, some taxpayers can use the telephone as the filing method for their return. The beauty of this filing method is that no computer or Internet access is required. There are no filing fees or costs.

Taxpayers who are eligible to file the simplest income tax return-- Form 1040EZ-- can use a Touch-Tone phone to access a toll-free number where they key in their wages, interest income, and taxes withheld to complete their return anytime of the day-- or night. The IRS then figures the tax and remits a refund check or sends a bill for taxes due. This filing method is explained in Chapter 3.

Privacy Concerns

Whenever you use the Internet-- to send e-mail, order goods, or enter chat rooms-- there's always a concern that your privacy can be invaded. Someone out there with the ability to hack can obtain your most personal information and use it to your detriment. Perhaps the most serious concern is that someone will obtain your Social Security number and other key information to steal your identity-- using your information to get credit that you're unaware of and run up debt that you can be liable for unless you can show identity theft.

CAUTION
As the IRS works to encourage e-filing, it adds new forms and schedules each year. Currently more than 100 forms and schedules are accepted through e-filing. Be sure to check on whether any of the "can't file" forms can now be processed online.

In the past these concerns were very real-- in the 1999 tax return season, for example, one on-line commercial site mixed up some taxpayer returns so that those who started to prepare returns online were given other taxpayers' information when they returned to complete their returns. And it was reported that the IRS site itself was vulnerable to hackers even though this is a violation of federal law under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 that authorizes criminal prosecution for violators.

Fortunately, security-- said to be one of the main reasons why more people don't e-file-- has been beefed up. During the 2000 tax return season there were no reports that any security was breached-- either at commercial sites or the IRS. At every web site you log onto for preparing returns online and/ or for e-filing, you'll see the security symbol displayed-- a key in the lower right hand screen of your computer. This symbol means that the site uses industry-standard Secure Socket Layer-- SSL-encryption technology to protect your personal information.

If you have any questions about your privacy at the IRS web site, you can send them to the Office of the Privacy Advocate of the IRS at CL: PA Room 7050, 1111 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20224.

CAUTION
Some sites do not use your financial data for any of its marketing. For example, the IRS web site specifically states that it will not collect personal information about anyone visiting its site. The IRS also does not use "cookies" (a file placed on your hard drive to allow a web site to monitor your use of the site). Other sites-- especially those offering free services-- request your permission to use the data for commercial purposes (or use the date unless you say otherwise).

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Table of Contents

Introduction.

Acknowledgments.

PART 1 Preparing and Filing Your Federal Income Tax Return.

1. The Basics of Online Filing.

Advantages of Online Filing.

Scope of Online Filing.

Privacy Concerns.

2. Preparing Your Return.

Return Preparation Options.

Selecting Tax Software.

Using Tax Software.

Preparing Returns Online.

Returns by Telephone.

Avoiding Common Mistakes in Online Return Preparation.

3. Filing Electronically.

Electronic Filing Alternatives.

Mechanics of Online Filing.

Getting Refunds.

Paying Taxes Owed.

4. Preparing and Filing Other Federal Tax Forms.

Filing Extensions.

Estimated Taxes.

Other Forms.

PART 2 Preparing and Filing Your State Income Tax Return.

5. Preparing Your State Return.

Return Preparation Options for State Returns.

Selecting Tax Software for State Returns.

Using Software for State Returns.

Preparing State Returns Online.

State Returns by Telephone.

Getting State Tax Information.

6. Filing State Returns Electronically.

Electronic Filing Alternatives.

Mechanics of Online Filing.

Getting Refunds.

Paying Taxes Owed.

State-by-State Survey of Filing Options.

7. Preparing and Filing Other State Tax Forms.

Filing Extensions for State Income Tax Returns.

State Estimated Taxes.

Property Taxes.

Other Taxes.

PART 3 Small Business Owner?s Guide to Taxes Online.

8. Filing Business Income Tax Returns.

Benefits of E-Filing Business Income Tax Returns.

Selecting Software for Business Income Tax Returns.

Filing Electronically.

Getting Refunds.

Paying Taxes Owed.

9. Filing Employment Taxes and Other Returns.

Employment Taxes.

Information Returns.

Other Taxes and Returns.

10. Getting Business Information and Help Online.

IRS Assistance for Small Business.

Online Accounting Options.

Offering Electronic Filing as a Tax-Free Employee Benefit.

Tax-Related Information Online.

PART 4 Using the Internet for Tax Planning.

11. What the IRS Web Site Can Offer You.

Finding Materials for Tax Preparation.

Doing Tax Research at the IRS Site.

Solving Your Tax Questions Online.

Keeping Up to Date.

12. Online Tax Research.

Using Tax Web Browsers.

Online Chats and Other Tax Forums.

Doing Tax Research Online.

Learning from Online Tax Guides.

Learning from Major Accounting Firms.

Locating Tax Professionals Online.

Other Online Resources.

13. Online Tax Planning.

Income Tax Planning.

Investment Planning.

College Savings Planning.

Retirement Planning.

Estate Planning.

Glossary.

Appendix A: Directory of Online Tax Web Sites.

Appendix B: Directory of State Revenue Departments.

Index.

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