It's that season again.
No, not cold-and-flu season.
But tax-form season. (Believe what you may, but the two are not synonymous.)
Marylanders should now be receiving their federal and state income-tax booklets in the mail. And while both have some new features, the state and federal agencies that collect those taxes say they have boosted service to make the whole process easier for taxpayers.
"Taxpayer service continues to be of paramount importance to us. We don't have any merchandise to sell, so what we [offer] is service," Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein joked with reporters at a morning news conference downtown yesterday.
At the news conference, Goldstein and Paul M. Harrington, director of the Internal Revenue Service district that serves Maryland, detailed some of the tax-form changes, and outlined the places taxpayers can go for help in filling out those forms.
Taxpayers can do a lot to help themselves, Harrington said.
"Most errors are made on the first few lines -- Social Security numbers, exemptions, filing status, standard deductions, tax bTC credits," Harrington said. "Don't forget to check your math, be sure figures are on the right lines, and don't forget to attach your W-2 forms and don't forget to sign your return."
About 2 million state tax booklets were mailed out to Marylanders. The forms are a lot like last year's, meaning taxpayers will be able to use their 1996 returns as a good model. But Goldstein noted a few exceptions:
The income tax rate for Talbot County dropped to 40 percent, the only local tax rate to change.
For senior citizens who qualify for Maryland's pension exclusion, the maximum exclusion for 1997 is $15,000 -- up from $14,400 for 1996. For the second year, these taxpayers will not have to fill out a separate form for exclusion benefit. They can use the work sheet in the instructions and make a one-line entry on the Maryland long form.
The return label is on a flap inside the front cover -- a change made because some people were worried about having their Social Security number displayed on the front label of the booklet. Maryland is offering seven tax-tip brochures for taxpayers in special filing situations. The brochures are free and can be requested by telephone (410-974- 3981), via the state's "Forms-by-Fax" system (410-974-FAXX), through the 20 taxpayer service offices listed on the back of the state tax booklet, or via the comptroller's Web site: (www.comp.state.md.us).
For the second year, Maryland is fielding tax questions via e-mail (taxhelomp.state.md.us); last year, half of the state's tax questions came via the digital route. There's even a service offering the tax forms by e-mail: (formomp.state.md.us).
Increasingly, taxpayers using professional tax preparers are having their forms filed electronically -- more than 150,000 did so last year. This year, for the first time, those who file their state returns electronically have the option of having their refunds direct-deposited to their bank accounts -- usually within two days.
"Can you be any faster than that?" Goldstein asked.
On the federal front, taxpayers should not be surprised if they get a different tax booklet than last year, a postcard with a mailing label or even no booklet at all if they used a paid preparer. The IRS is saving on printing and postage costs by no longer sending forms to those who do not necessarily need them. It has also boosted customer service by increasing the hours assistance is available by telephone -- 16 hours a day, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., including Saturdays (800-829-1040).
The IRS Web site has forms, publications, and lots of information available for downloading (www.irs.ustreas.gov) and also via fax and telephone (800-TAX-FORM).
Federal refunds can also be direct-deposited, Harrington said.
Pub Date: 1/07/98