Get your financial records in order and fire up your computer—it’s tax season. This year, the IRS expects to receive about 161 million individual income tax returns. While most people don’t look forward to filing their taxes, most taxpayers are looking forward to receiving their refunds, which, as of the end of last year’s extended filing season, averaged almost $2,800. To help your tax return preparation go off without a hitch, we sat down with Anthony Burke at the IRS to find out what you need to know before filing this year.
This year, the IRS will begin accepting returns on Feb. 12, allowing the IRS time to do additional programming and testing of IRS systems following the December 27 tax law changes that provided a second round of Economic Impact Payments and other benefits. This programming work is critical to ensuring IRS systems run smoothly. If filing season were opened without the correct programming in place, then there could be a delay in issuing refunds to taxpayers. These changes ensure that eligible people will receive any remaining stimulus money as a Recovery Rebate Credit when they file their 2020 tax return.
Note that on January 15, 2020, IRS Free File opened. Taxpayers can begin filing returns through Free File partners; tax returns will be transmitted to the IRS starting Feb. 12. Tax software companies also are accepting tax filings in advance.
Taxpayers should be careful of their data and protect their financial information. This year the IRS made its IP PIN program available to all individual income tax filers. The Identity Protection PIN (IP PIN) is a six-digit code known only to the taxpayer and to the IRS. It helps prevent identity thieves from filing fraudulent tax returns using a taxpayers' personally identifiable information.
More than 160 million Americans received the Economic Impact Payment in 2020, however, some did not receive it or did not receive the amount to which they were entitled; they should claim the Recovery Rebate Credit. This credit is figured like last year's economic impact payment, except eligibility and the amount of the credit are based on your tax year 2020 information. See the instructions for line 30 and the Recovery Rebate Credit Worksheet to figure your credit amount.
This year, the IRS is making more of its information available in languages other than English. For the first time, the Form 1040 and the related instructions will be available in Spanish, as well as the handy guide for individual income tax filers, Publication 17.
AAA: When is the deadline to file your tax year 2020 personal federal income taxes?
Anthony Burke: This year, the April 15 federal tax deadline falls on a Thursday. That’s when your tax payments and tax return are due to the IRS. People can always get an automatic six-month extension of time to file their tax return with IRS, but that’s not an extension of time to pay. If you owe money, the penalties and interest begin after April 15. You can request this automatic extension of time to file through e-file or by filing a paper Form 4868; to find out more, go to IRS.gov and enter ‘extension’ in the search box.
AAA: What is the fastest way to file your taxes?
Burke: Fast is good for sure, but fast and accurate is very important. Seventy percent of taxpayers qualify to use the IRS Free File program, which is a partnership with the private software industry to provide free tax preparation software to taxpayers whose adjusted gross income was $72,000 or less in 2020. Filing your tax return is also free, quick, and easy if you do it yourself. You can usually complete a simple IRS return in 30 minutes or less. Gathering all the documents you need—[Form] W-2s, 1099s, statements on interest and investment income, etcetera—usually takes longer than actually entering the information into the software and e-filing the return. If you have all your documents ready, the process can be done quickly.
Every year, more people choose to file from a home computer. During 2020, almost half (47%) of all the e-file returns the IRS received were prepared on a home computer.
AAA: Tax documents normally start arriving in people’s mailboxes in January. What documents should filers locate before preparing their taxes?
Burke: For most people, a Form W-2 Wage Tax Statement from your employer is the key to getting started. If you had side jobs or other income, you may also receive a Form 1099 from whomever paid you during 2020. Don’t forget bank and investment income; you’ll need statements from that income as well.
Also, because of the coronavirus pandemic, about 160 million received Economic Impact Payments from the Treasury Department during 2020. The Economic Impact Payments are not taxable and should not be included in income. However, many people also received unemployment income and as with any other unemployment situation, those benefits are taxable.
AAA: What should people do if they haven’t received a Form W-2 from their employer?Burke: Employers have until January 31 to issue W-2s to their employees. After that time, you should check with your employer as to when you can expect a W-2. If you still haven’t received your W-2 by February 15, you can call the IRS, and we’ll send your employer a letter. But you still have to file on time, even if you don’t get your Form W-2. You can always use Form 4852, Substitute for Form W-2.
AAA: Many Americans opt to use a tax preparer to help them file a return. What advice do you have for choosing a tax preparer?
Burke: More than half of all taxpayers hire a professional when it’s time to file a tax return, and the vast majority of tax pros are honest. You should, however, use the same care in selecting a tax professional as you do in selecting a doctor or attorney. You are going to be sharing confidential information with your tax person, so get referrals, and do some research.
Be wary of a tax preparer who wants to take a percentage of your refund as their fee. Also, make sure that the tax preparer signs the return and includes a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). If the preparer is unwilling to sign the return, include a PTIN, and e-file the return, look for another preparer.
Never sign a blank tax return when someone tells you they will just fill in the numbers later. In the end, it’s your signature on the tax return, so you’re responsible for it. Be safe with your personal information, and be sure to ask questions until you feel comfortable with the person who will be preparing your taxes.
AAA: For those filing their taxes on their own, what are some common errors to avoid?
Burke: The biggest mistake a taxpayer could make is not using IRS e-file because e-file is the fastest and most accurate way to do your taxes.
With e-file, math mistakes and mistakes calculating certain credits or deductions are caught by your computer software, but it is still a good idea to double-check the math and [to] be sure to read instructions and qualifications carefully. Bottom line, if we catch an error on your return, it will definitely slow down the processing, and you will have to wait longer to get any refund money.
AAA: Some early birds may have already filed their taxes. How can they check the status of their refund, and generally how long does it take for a refund to be processed?
Burke: For taxpayers who e-file and choose direct deposit, IRS generally issues refunds in less than 21 days. Use the IRS website, IRS.gov/refunds, which has an app for your smartphone called IRS2go. Both of these sources have a connection to the ‘Where’s My Refund?’ tool that allows you to check where your refund is in the process. You will need some key information from your return—filing status, exact amount of refund, etcetera—so have a copy of your return handy. Make sure you use the official ‘Where’s My Refund?’ tool on IRS.gov or the IRS2Go app. Unfortunately, crafty scam artists may use look-alike products to try to steal your personal information.
AAA: If I have a question about filing my taxes, what is the best way to reach the IRS?
Burke: By far the best way to get your question answered is to start with the IRS.gov website. The Interactive Tax Assistant, FAQs, Tax Tips and searchable information on IRS.gov are the way to go. We do have an 800/TAX-1040 phone line that is usually open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time. Calling may mean waiting on hold for a bit, since millions of people are calling. One thing to remember, even after listening to our wonderful wait-time music: Our customer service reps often steer callers back to the website for the answers. Save some time and check the website first.