With the government's April 15 tax deadline just days away, the rush is on for many Americans who have yet to file their tax returns.
If you're one of them, experts like Tom Ochsenschlager have some familiar advice: "Don't panic."
With help from Ochsenschlager, the vice president of taxation for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and Jackie Perlman, a tax analyst at The Tax Institute at H&R Block, the tax preparation company, ABCNews.com has compiled a list of tips for those filing their taxes at the last minute:
File online for free. For the first time, no matter what your income, you can file your tax returns online for free through the IRS Web site at www.irs.gov.
Those who earned less than $56,000 in adjusted gross income in 2008 can also qualify for free software for step-by-step help.
If you're eligible for a tax refund, filing electronically will help you get that cash much more quickly than mailing in your returns. Within a matter of days, Perlman said, it can also alert you to certain errors on your tax return, like making a typo on your child's Social Security number.
File for a tax extension but get ready to pay. If you just can't get your returns finished in time, file an extension. Everyone is eligible for an extension, which allows taxpayers six more months -- until Oct. 15 -- to file returns and millions of Americans take advantage of extensions every year.
The bad news is that, like tax returns, extension requests are also due April 15, and filing one doesn't mean you get more time to pay your taxes. It just means you get more time to finish your paperwork. Taxpayers filing extension requests must still estimate roughly how much they owe the IRS (if anything) and send a check for that amount by April 15.
Contrary to popular belief, Ochsenschlager said, filing an extension request -- whether it's once or for several different tax years -- won't make you any more likely to be audited.
Don't pay too little. If you're in a hurry and filing an extension, a good way to determine how much you owe is to use last year's tax filings as your guide. Given the beating that the recession has given to many people's income and investments, if you owe money at all, chances are you owe less than last year. … But don't drop your estimate too much: If the IRS finds you haven't paid enough, you'll face fees and penalties.
Last year's tax returns will be less helpful if you've had a major life change, like purchasing a house or switching jobs. In that situation, it might be best to consult a tax professional.
Standard deductions make for quick filings. If your financial life isn't a complicated one -- you don't pay interest on a home mortgage, you don't make large charitable contributions, etc. -- you can get your taxes done quickly by filing for a standard deduction instead of itemizing deductions. For 2008 tax returns, the standard deduction for single individuals is $5,450; for married couples, it's $10,900. Additional standard deductions apply for those over age 65 and with disabilities.
Don't forget the new real estate tax deduction. There's a new standard tax deduction for homeowners. They can add a $1,000 standard deduction if they pay real estate taxes. This will prove especially beneficial to homeowners who have paid off their mortgages and don't deduct mortgage interest payments from their taxes.