In Yesterday's Washington Business tax guide, three paragraphs were omitted from a section on taxable income. The section is reprinted today on Page E2.
The Washington Post Tax Guide for 1985 tax returns starts by observing the one piece of important tax-related news to which one can react positively or negatively:
No new tax legislation was passed last year.
The negative reaction is to note that the lack of such legislation means there is no tax simplification, no reduction in tax rates or in the number of tax brackets and no elimination of those unfair tax loopholes that all the other guys use to avoid paying their fair share of the national tax burden.
The positive reaction is to note that there are no new rules to decipher, no new forms to figure out and no elimination of those proper and well-deserved tax credits and allowances you and I have been using all these years.
Of course, there are changes to watch for -- changes legislated by all the new tax rules passed by Congress in the last few years, such as the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, the Social Security Amendments of 1983 and, finally, the Tax Reform Act (a part of the Deficit Reduction Act) of 1984.
This outpouring of tax legislation has scared a lot of people out of attempting to prepare their own returns and has sent them flocking in record numbers to commercial tax preparers. But that's not the ideal solution either; even if you use a preparer, you must provide all the basic information -- and to do that, you need to know what information pertains in this confusing tax climate.
So we offer The Washington Post Tax Guide XIV, with explanations and guidance dedicated to making the chore of preparing income tax returns a little easier. We'll cover the tax forms and schedules most used by our readers, and we'll try to anticipate -- and answer -- the most commonly asked questions, emphasizing the areas that have seen the most significant changes in the past few years.
In addition to covering the federal rules, we will provide some basic information on the filing of District, Maryland and Virginia returns, paying particular attention to the sections in which state requirements are different than federal instructions. Pick a Pro?
If you were able to prepare your 1984 tax return yourself, you certainly should be able to do it again this year (unless you had some unusual and confusing financial transactions unlike any you had in 1984).
If you used a professional preparer for your return, you might want to take a crack at it yourself this time, particularly if circumstances in 1985 were similar to those in 1984 so that you can use last year's return as a guide.
You will have to spend some time reviewing the forms and instructions; you can't simply plug in 1985 numbers on the 1984 return because there have been some line changes. But with the help of this Tax Guide and the various IRS publications mentioned, you should be able to make it.
And -- as pointed out earlier -- you must be conversant with the rules, in any case, to be able to gather the necessary and pertinent data for a tax professional if you elect to use one.
Help is available. If you need more detailed instructions than are given in the information booklet that accompanied your tax forms, pick up a copy of IRS Publication 17, "Your Federal Income Tax," free at local IRS offices or by mail from the address given in your booklet. (Taxpayers who are more fluent in Spanish than in English should get a copy of IRS Publication 5795.)
If you operate a business either full time or part time, Publication 534, "Tax Guide for Small Business," also will prove helpful.
There are also a number of free booklets available from the IRS, each relating to a specific area of the tax law. Although the language gets a little technical at times, for the most part the explanations are easy to follow. Some of these booklets are mentioned elsewhere in this guide.
If personalized help seems necessary or you want to get an answer to a specific question, you can get free advice or assistance from the IRS, either on a walk-in basis at any IRS office or by phone over specialized taxpayer assistance lines.
Taxpayers who live in the District, Montgomery or Prince George's counties should call 488-3100 for help. Residents of Northern Virginia are served by the Baileys Crossroads office at 557-9230. As part of a new centralized distribution system, you should call 1-800-424-3676 (normal business days from 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) to request federal tax forms and publications only -- but not for answers to questions or for other help.
Hearing-impaired persons who have access to TTY equipment can get assistance from the IRS by calling 1-800-428-4732 any day between 8 a.m. and 6:45 p.m.
See page 33 for more information on where to go if you need assistance.
You generally will get good information from the people at the local IRS offices. During the height of the tax season, however, the taxpayer assistance staff is augmented by part-time and temporary help with limited training -- so you certainly should get started early if you anticipate needing assistance.
Keep in mind that the government is not bound by the advice you receive at its own offices. Citing advice from an IRS employe will not get you off the hook if it turns out that the advice was wrong. You might be able to avoid the imposition of a penalty, but you will have to pay any tax that is properly due.
If you decide you need the assistance of a professional tax preparer, you have a pretty wide choice. A "tax preparer" might be a highly skilled accountant who works for the government or private industry and moonlights for a few months for the extra income. But he or she may be just someone who has read a tax book or taken a short course in tax preparation. There are no federal or state rules establishing standards of training or experience -- anyone may hang out a shingle as a tax preparer.
The large chain operations generally can give satisfactory service at low cost if you have a routine tax situation. And some of the chains offer an "executive service," often in your own home or office, for a complicated return.
As a rule, however, the storefront offices are not geared to handle a complex return or an unusual situation. If you are faced with that kind of problem, you may want to go to a public accounting firm or a tax attorney. As you might expect, their fees generally are higher than those of the commercial preparers.
Qualified tax preparers who are neither attorneys nor certified public accountants may become "enrolled agents" by passing a comprehensive examination given by the IRS. An enrolled agent may not have a broad background in accounting or law, but you generally can expect that he or she will be competent and knowledgeable in tax matters.
Whatever level of assistance you select, be sure that the preparer (or parent firm) will be around all year to assist in answering queries from the IRS. Whoever prepared your return may accompany you or even represent you at an IRS audit. (But only a CPA, attorney or enrolled agent may represent you at the higher appeal levels or in the tax courts.)
Regardless of the qualifications of the preparer or the size of the fee, you personally have final responsibility for the accuracy and legality of the return. The preparer only can work from the data you provide and the statements you make.
A qualified preparer should be familiar with many techniques for legally reducing your tax liability. But tax evasion -- the reduction of taxes by deliberate misstatement or omission -- is against the law.
So stay away from anyone who tells you what you can "get away with," or who promises a refund before examining your tax information. Be wary of a preparer whose fee is based on a percentage of your refund or of the tax savings he has "found" for you. The fee should be based on the complexity of the return and the time it takes to prepare it.
Be sure you understand and agree with every entry on your return. If the person who prepares your return cannot or will not answer your questions and explain the entries, go elsewhere. Never sign a blank return or one that has been filled out in pencil; and never agree to have a refund sent to the tax preparer rather than directly to you.
Any person who prepares a tax return for another for pay must sign the return and enter an identification or Social Security number. The preparer must give you a copy of the return at the same time the original is presented for your signature.
As you might suspect, civil and criminal penalties may be imposed for willful tax evasion. What you may not know is that penalties also may be assessed -- against the taxpayer and the tax preparer -- for tax deficiencies caused by carelessness in gathering data and for material omissions, even if unintentional.
Whether you use a preparer or complete your own tax return, you have a legal responsibility to pay every dollar of tax that is required. On the other hand, you also have a right -- even a responsibility -- to reduce your tax liability to the lowest amount possible under the law.
So read carefully, and relate what you read to your personal circumstances. Your responsibility as a taxpayer does not extend to overstating your income tax liability by reporting nontaxable income or omitting any deductions or credits for which you qualify.
If you really want to send a little something to Uncle Sam, there is a mechanism for making a contribution for the specific purpose of reducing the national debt -- so look for it later on in this guide.