If you're a procrastinator who doesn't like to think about taxes before baseball's opening day, stay away from the mail box for the next week or so.
About 2 million federal and state income tax forms are going out to Marylanders in the traditional New Year's mailing. Some could begin arriving in mail boxes today.
Federal and state returns are due April 15, although officials say earlier filers will receive quicker refunds. State refunds -- which averaged $335 last year -- will take 10 to 15 days for returns filed by February, says Marvin Bond, a spokesman for Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein. Refunds for returns filed at the April 15 deadline will take at least three weeks.
Federal refunds, which averaged $950 for Marylanders last year, should take four to six weeks for early filers and eight to 10 weeks for late ones, says Sam Serio, a spokesman for the Baltimore District of the Internal Revenue Service.
Both the state and federal governments allow returns to be filed electronically by computer through participating tax preparers. Refunds often take less time for electronic filers.
Budget cuts have reduced the size of the comptroller's staff to levels of a decade ago, Bond says. But the department is authorized to use temporary workers and is depending on a greater use of electronic filing to help reduce the load.
Taxpayers with questions, or those who do not receive their forms in the next few weeks, can call 1-800-829-3676 to order a federal packet and 1-800-638-2937 for state forms. Forms are also available at many banks, libraries, post offices and other outlets.
Generally, a taxpayer must file a federal return if he or she earned at least $5,550 and is a single filer, $7,150 if a head of household, $10,000 if filing jointly and $2,150 if married and filing separately.
It may be to one's advantage to file even if his or her income is below the minimums, Serio says. Some low-income taxpayers may be eligible for refunds or earned-income credits, he says. Maryland offers a special, five-line form for people who are not required to file tax returns but are eligible for refunds.
Among the changes federal taxpayers will see this year are higher standard deductions and personal exemptions, larger earned income credit maximums, and some changes in the rates for high-income earners.
Maryland tax returns this year feature expanded tables showing income up to $100,000 instead of the old $50,000. This does not change the taxes owed but should help reduce calculation errors, Bond says.
Other changes in the state form include an increase in the maximum pension exclusion and higher minimum incomes for those required tofile. This year, taxpayers must file a state return if they earned at least $5,550 for single filers or $11,300 for joint filers or those over 65.
This is the last year Marylanders will be able to claim a capital gains tax break. The provision was eliminated by the General Assembly starting in 1992.
Some taxpayers delay mailing both federal and state returns until the last moment once they determine they owe money to the IRS. Many of these taxpayers may still be eligible for a state refund and can mail the state form earlier, Bond says.
Veterans of the Persian Gulf War may be eligible for certain tax benefits, such as an exemption from state taxes of up to $15,000 in overseas active duty.