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Magazines > Searcher > April 2003
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Vol. 11 No. 4 — April 2003
Internet Express
Pay It Forward; Or, Can the Web Offer Tax Relief?
by Irene E. McDermott • Reference Librarian/System ManagerSan Marino Public Library

"The trick is to stop thinking of it as 'your' money."

­Revenue Auditor

Once again, the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun. The return of songbirds and the unfolding of green leaves on black branches herald the arrival of one of two inevitable life-events. If you are not dead, then it must be time to file your tax return.

I complain about ceding that sizeable chunk of my gross income to the government every year. Yet, I know that my taxes go toward important things like picking up the trash, running my son's public school, and hey, paying my salary. Still, to me, paying taxes is like spending money for tube socks. Necessary, but no fun.

Still, the Web can make paying taxes more enjoyable, or at least less excruciating. A variety of free advice resources and Web-based applications can help us all negotiate tricky tax laws. Maybe we can even figure out how to save some money on our taxes, or rather, to avoid overpaying. It's worth a shot.

File Online for Free

"I see a good deal of talk from Washington about lowering taxes. I hope they do get 'em lowered enough so people can afford to pay 'em."

­Will Rogers

The big news is that federal tax authorities recently launched an electronic filing initiative that allows millions of us to file our annual tax returns over the Internet — for free.

Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., director of the Office of Management and Budget, announced the new service by noting, "Simply paying taxes is burden enough without the extra costs in time and professional help that too many Americans have endured until now. The advent of free, fast filing for a substantial majority of taxpayers marks a great breakthrough."

Why is the government helping us out? Well, the Internal Revenue Service would like to have 80 percent of taxpayers filing online by 2007. Still, lawmakers did not want the IRS site to compete with private industry. In a compromise, a public/private partnership with 17 companies, called the "Free File Alliance," was created to get the program off the ground.

The Free File Alliance

http://www.irs.gov/app/freeFile/ jsp/index.jsp?

The IRS provides annotated links to the 17 members of the Free File Alliance. Members include such trusted tax names as CCH's CompleteTax, TurboTax, and H&R Block. All of the Alliance members have different criteria for free filing eligibility. Browse their features, or use the Free File Wizard to help you choose a service.

The Catch

This year, the IRS has designated only seven states where every resident can e-file for free: Arizona, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina. In other states, free filing is restricted to the low in age and income or those on the opposite end of the scale. Taxpayers of middle age and income, in general, must pay a fee to file their federal tax returns online.

Also, because the members of the "Free File Alliance" are commercial vendors, expect them to pitch you products and services beyond their basic free package. Watch for charges for offers such as loans in anticipation of tax refunds and state tax return preparation. Citizens should especially be aware that 28 states offer at least some free e-filing of state returns over the Web. Find more information at the Federation of Tax Administrators site [http://www.taxadmin.org/fta/link/internet.html].

Half a loaf is better than none, as they say. It's worth a look-see to determine if free electronic filing could work its magic for you this year.

Tax Portals and Directories

"Your federal government needs your money so that it can perform vital services for you that you would not think up yourself in a million years."

­Dave Barry

Before you do any filing, you may well want to assess the general state of your finances in the light of new tax laws. If your situation is too complicated, you will need the help of a tax professional to get the most out of your return. Browse these directories to get the feel of just how much help you will need.

Yahoo! Tax Center

http://taxes.yahoo.com/

Yahoo! offers this all-purpose portal to tax information on the Web. In addition to over 200 articles about general topics in the area, this site offers tips for tax planning around investment income, divorce, and retirement. Use the free tax calculators here to figure out your good (or bad) news. Once you figure it all out, use this site to pay your taxes online or over the telephone in return for a small "convenience fee."

Uncle Fed's Tax Board

http://www.unclefed.com/

Jack Warren Wade, Jr., author of Audit-Proofing Your Tax Return, is the uncle behind Uncle Fed's. He and his cohorts — none of them associated with the government, by the way — offer a panoply of tax articles and links as a public service. Look here for links to fill-in IRS forms, GAO reports on the IRS for the last few years, and even a countdown calendar, accurate to the second, until April 15, when your taxes are due. File your returns on this site through a partnership with H&R Block. Thanks, Uncle Fed!

1040.com

http://1040.com/

Drake Software, provider of tax software for professionals, has put together this portal with useful news and information for both tax preparers and payers. Download tax forms, file online for $15 or less, or find a tax professional in your area, all through this site. Sign up for the free tax information e-newsletter. "1040.com is your one-stop tax source!"

Tax Resources on the Web

http://pages.prodigy.net/agkalman/

California-based tax accountant Alan G. Kalman, BBA, MST, offers this well-organized, thorough, yet graphics-challenged directory of tax links. Hey, he's an accountant, not an artist! Find links to answer all your tax questions, including how to handle those pesky excessive viatical or accelerated death benefits.

Tax and Accounting Sites Directory

http://taxsites.com/

Dennis Schmidt, professor of Accounting at the University of Northern Iowa, maintains this comprehensive index of Web-based tax and accounting resources.

Tax Planning: U.S.

http://www.completetax.com/tools.asp

Shellie L. Moore, an Ohio-based CPA, is the About.com guide to U.S. taxes. She offers detailed reviews of tax books, services, and software. Visit her site for links to quality information about estate taxes, as well as tax considerations in retirement planning, mutual fund dividends, and having an office at home.

Tax Advice, Planning, and Calculators

"Like mothers, taxes are often misunderstood, but seldom forgotten."

­Lord Bramwell

Maybe you don't need to hire a professional if you can find just the right advice to answer your questions.

Tax Mama: Tax Information with a Mother's Touch

http://www.taxmama.com/

Eva Rosenberg, MBA, EA, offers this "nice, homey, helpful place to visit for anyone seeking guidance on income tax issues or, heaven forbid, problems." She answers many questions that she receives via e-mail and posts those exchanges on her site. "This is the fifth year I'm answering questions for free. There are thousands of answers already on the site," Rosenberg comments.

Fun with Taxes

http://www.funwithtaxes.com/

Gail Perry is a CPA and author of TurboTax Deluxe, the Official Guide. Each week here at Fun with Taxes.com, Perry offers useful tax planning tips and responds to your tax-related questions. Visit her "Tax Preparation Toolbox" to find such helpful applications as the "Tax Withholding Calculator," the "Tax Refund Calculator," the "IRA Calculator," and, from the Salvation Army, "Valuation Tables" to help you calculate the value of your charitable donations.

Bankrate.com Taxes: Rates, Forms and Free Advice

http://www.bankrate.com/brm/itax/

This aggregator of information about financial products offers a well-organized portal designed to help consumers make the best decisions about their taxes. Read about "tax basics" as well as a series of clearly written articles about the latest changes in tax laws.

Nolo Law Centers Encyclopedia: Taxes and Audits

http://www.nolo.com/lawcenter/ency/index.cfm/

The above URL will get you to the Encyclopedia main page. Click on "Taxes and Audits" on the left side of the page to get general legal advice about such things as "How to Deal with the IRS," "How to Reduce the Chance of an Audit," and "See Your Home as a Tax Shelter."

Wiley: Lasser Tax Advisor

http://www.wiley.com/legacy/jklasser/
advisor/lasser_tax_advisor_main.html

Come early April, J. K. Lasser's Your Income Tax is the most popular title in our reference collection. Visit this site to pick up some solid tips on basic tax questions. Don't see your answer here? You can submit your question. Those with wide reader interest will be answered on the site or in the free Lasser Tax Advisor Newsletter.

Fool.com Tax Center

http://www.fool.com/taxes/taxcenter/taxcenter.htm

Let Motley Fool's David and Tom Gardner and their cohorts give you solid tax information in an irreverent yet factual fashion. The featured article this season is "Five Things You Gotta Know About Taxes."

Free Tax Tools from Quicken.com

http://www.turbotax.com/taxes/tools/?src=www.quicken.com

Intuit says that it takes "your taxes seriously. That's why we've created these helpful tools to slash your taxes. Rather than figure out complicated tax laws, just enter your information into these tools, and we'll show you how to make a big impact on your tax bill." Cool! Use the "College Savings Planner," a calculator to help you decide "Which Stock Lot Should You Sell?" and a "Tax Relief Estimator" to see how the tax cut will benefit you over the next 9 years.

Tax Resources from America's Top Rated Tax Software

http://www.taxcut.com/taxtips.html

H&R Block and Kiplinger's Finance offer this set of tools to help us all get our taxes as low as possible. Use the site's Withholding Calculator to make sure that you don't owe a lump sum in April. Read advice on tax planning, keep up with tax law changes, or read my favorite part with tips on how to "Cut Your Taxes."

Taxopedia.com

http://www.taxopedia.com/

Edmonton-based Equade Internet brings us this portal designed to offer tax information all of us can understand. As such, it features a question and answer section with the kind of issues any of us might wonder about. For example, find out whether it is better to trade in an old car or to donate it to charity. This site also includes a large dictionary of tax terms and tips.

Tax Preparers

"The hardest thing in the world to understand is income tax!"

­Albert Einstein

Perhaps you've decided that you just can't solve the snag you've hit by yourself. It's time to call in the pros. Try to line one up early in the season, though. Their calendars fill up pretty quickly.

TaxBrain Online Tax Center

http://www.taxbrain.com/home.asp

Ladies and gentlemen over the age of 50: TaxBrain has taken pity on your "elderly" state. This site promises that it will help you file your taxes electronically for free. Check here also for advice from tax guru J. K. Lasser.

TurboTax

http://www.turbotax.com/

"When I was living in China a few years ago, I used TurboTax for the Web to file my taxes over the Internet," says Scott, one of our library's computer guru guys. File online or buy the software for your own computer, Intuit's TurboTax will give you plenty of help. Find more help on is site. Heck, you can even calculate how much the President's recent tax proposal will probably save you.

CCH CompleteTax

http://www.completetax.com/tools.asp

CompleteTax charges $24.95 to figure out your taxes, but it will file them electronically for nix. Check out the free tax information here.

TaxGaga: E-File IRS Federal and State Taxes and Income Tax Extensions

http://www.taxgaga.com/

E-file your taxes through TaxGaga for $19.95. Or, let the site professionally prepare your return for about $40. Read the articles about various difficult tax situations, too. These cover topics such as the best way to file if you are a single mom and what to do if you want to avoid being audited.

Other Tax Issues

"A taxpayer is someone who works for the federal government but who doesn't have to take a civil service examination."

­Ronald Reagan

Just saying the word "taxes" is a political act that drives many Americans into apoplexy. In Washington, D.C., no one dares to breathe the word. Instead, they use the euphemism "revenue."

Political dynasties have ruled the U.S. for decades on the premise that government is evil and that taxes are unfair to the working person. It may help to read opinions and history on the issue to help us think about taxes rationally, sans the red fog of rage that ordinarily clouds our eyes the moment anyone mentions the subject.

TRAC: IRS

http://trac.syr.edu/tracirs/index.html

This nonpartisan resource examines the public data about the Internal Revenue Service then tries to discern a pattern in tax law enforcement behavior. Very interesting. Will you be audited for this year's return? Sign up for free e-mail alerts to discover your odds.

The Tax History Project at Tax Analysts

http://www.taxhistory.org/

Since 1995, Joseph J. Thorndike has offered this analysis of tax history "to provide scholars, policy makers, students, the media, and citizens with information about the history of American taxation." Get the goods on how the income tax began to finance the Civil War, on how reorganization at the Internal Revenue Service causes tax audit rates to drop, and other interesting bits of tax trivia.

Tax Foundation

http://www.taxfoundation.org/home.html

The D.C.-based Tax Foundation bills itself as "an objective, unbiased" clearinghouse of tax information to the American public since 1937. Still, its analysis is decidedly pro-Bush. Read the site's optimistic take on how much we can all expect from the 2003 presidential proposal for tax rebates.

Life's Certainties

It was Benjamin Franklin who wrote, "But in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." True. And did you know that death planning via the Web is on the rise?

No matter how much you end up owing Uncle Sam, I hope that these Web sites make the experience of figuring it out a lot easier than dying. These sites were all alive in February 2003.

The Old-Fashioned Way

"They say that the wages of sin is death. But after taxes — it's just a tired feeling, really."

­Paula Poundstone

"I don't know why," my husband tells me, "but I just don't feel comfortable filing online."

Books, he'll buy online, but he will not file our taxes that way. It's not that he feels that the transmission method is insecure. He just wants to carry to the post office the actual piece of paper bearing the numbers that he wrote down. This ensures that he submits exactly what he meant to file. He's afraid that otherwise, a slip of a finger on a keyboard and a push of the "send" button might open up a world of trouble.

He does use tax software. Still, I see so many folks come into the library in search of paper tax forms — two copies each, please. These are people who wouldn't dream of touching a computer to help them do something as important as figuring their tax returns.

For these people — and their librarians — here are the sites to visit:

IRS Forms and Publications

http://www.irs.gov/formspubs/index.html

Can't find that federal tax form that your patron simply must have? What about that obscure Form 8863 that allows you to file for an education credit? Or maybe your public library ran out of that popular Schedule A. Forget about copying those glossy, slippery forms out of that IRS notebook. Instead, go online and print out your forms in PDF format.

Federation of Tax Administrators

http://www.taxadmin.org/

The Federation of Tax Administrators (FTA) was formed in 1937 to provide intergovernmental and interstate tax coordination. Visit this portal for quick links to tax forms from all 50 states.

Tax Related Primary Resources on the Internet

http://www.bus.utexas.edu/department/
accounting/faculty_staff/josephr/384/itaxsrcs.htm

Richard J. Joseph, senior lecturer and director, Master in Professional Accounting Degree Programs at the University of Texas at Austin, has compiled and annotated this stark list of links to primary government and legal tax documents. Read the court opinions and tax laws that are at the root of our misery this time every year.


Irene McDermott's e-mail address is irene@ci.san-marino.ca.us.
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