Get your financial records in order and fire up your computer: It’s tax season. This year, more than 155 million Americans are expected to file an individual income tax return, according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). While most people don’t look forward to filing their taxes, some might be looking forward to a refund, which last year averaged $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.
AAA World: When is the deadline to file 2019 personal federal income taxes?
Anthony Burke: This year, the July 15 federal tax deadline falls on a Wednesday. 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 July 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.
AAAW: 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 $69,000 or less in 2019. 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; last year, more than 57 million income tax returns were filed with the IRS using home computers.
AAAW: 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 and Tax Statement from your employer is the key to getting started. If you had side jobs or other income, you may also need a Form 1099 from whomever paid you during 2019.
AAAW: 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.
AAAW: 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.
Never sign a blank tax return when someone tells you they will just fill in the numbers later. In the end, it is 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.
AAAW: 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. You may end up with a smaller refund or even owe additional tax.
AAAW: 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.
AAAW: 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.