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A Half-Dozen Tips for 11th-Hour Filers

• Don't forget, you can now choose between deducting your state and local income taxes and your sales tax. Normally, the income tax is a better deduction, but if you bought a big-ticket item, such as a car or boat, last year, you might run the numbers both ways.

• Also, if you had hefty medical expenses attributable to yourself or your spouse, it may pay to file separately. Usually, that's a bad idea because of the way the brackets work. But since medical expenses are deductible only to the extent they exceed 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income, filing separately may allow one of you to get past that threshold, possibly lowering your overall tax bill. But you have to run the numbers. IRS Publication 502, "Medical and Dental Expenses," gives details on these deductions.

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• If you find you really aren't going to get your return done by Friday, you can get an automatic four-month extension. You can file Form 4868, "Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return," but you can also get an extension by phone or online. The IRS even has a special toll-free phone line for extensions -- 888-796-1074 -- but you have to have filed a return for 2003.

And remember, the extension is only for filing your return, not paying your taxes. So you need to do a fairly accurate run-through of your return, and send a check if you owe. If you are getting an extension by phone or computer, you can pay any expected balance due by authorizing an automatic withdrawal from your bank account. You will need the bank routing and account numbers , and you must also be able to state the adjusted gross income from your 2003 tax return to verify your identity.

An additional extension is possible, but it's not automatic. You have to show the IRS you have a good reason for needing it.

If you can't pay, either when seeking an extension or filing your return, you have a couple of choices. You can put the amount due on a credit card, in effect borrowing it. The IRS doesn't charge a fee for this, but many card issuers do, so there may be a cost beyond any interest you have to pay.

If borrowing isn't workable, you can request an installment agreement, either by submitting Form 9465, "Installment Agreement Request," or your own written request for a payment plan, attached to the front of your return. You should specify the amount you can pay and the day you wish to make your payment each month. The IRS says it will respond, usually within 30 days, as to whether your request is approved or denied, or if additional information is needed. There's a $43 "user fee" for an installment agreement, and you'll be charged interest and late payment penalties.

Installment agreements can also be set up as payroll deductions or direct debits from your bank account.

If you can't pay at all, there is something called an "offer in compromise," under which the IRS will settle for less than full payment. But you have to satisfy the agency that you really can't pay now and won't be able to in the future, so don't think of this as an easy way out.


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