Tax season is officially here, with the Internal Revenue Service and state of Maryland starting Tuesday to accept electronically filed returns.
This is a good year for procrastinators. April 15 — the traditional due date for returns — falls on a Sunday and the following Monday is Emancipation Day, a holiday celebrated in Washington. This pushes the deadline to April 17.
But this is also a leap year, so Feb. 29 gives us one more day to ponder our taxes.
Many filers could use the extra time. The IRS estimates the total number of hours it will take this year to file the popular 1040 — from record keeping and planning to submitting the form — is 22.
The IRS also launches Free File on Tuesday on its website at irs.gov. Free File is a partnership between the agency and about 20 tax software companies to provide online filing at no cost. To use Free File, you can't make more than $57,000 a year.
For do-it-yourselfers of all income levels, the IRS offers Free File Fillable Forms. This is the electronic format of traditional paper forms that can be filed for free online, too.
If you're filing electronically on your own, make sure you print out the return and review it before hitting the send button, says Jackie Perlman, a principal tax analyst with the Tax Institute at H&R Block.
A software program will catch math errors or prompt you if you forget to sign the return, she says. But it can't tell whether you made the mistake of transposing numbers you enter yourself.
Of course, whether you file a paper or electronic return, taxes can be confusing. If you need help filling out a return, there's free assistance.
The IRS provides free tax preparation of simple returns for filers earning up to $50,000. Go to irs.gov to find the time and locations.
The Maryland comptroller's office will prepare state tax returns for free — regardless of income — at its dozen offices, says spokeswoman Christine Feldmann. Make sure you bring your W-2 and a completed copy of your federal return.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program has IRS-trained volunteers who will do your taxes for free if you make less than $50,000 a year.
"We're talking fairly simple tax returns … not rental property and buying and selling stocks," says Robin McKinney, director of the Maryland CASH Campaign, which is part of the program.
AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program's trained volunteers provide free tax help to low- to moderate-income households, with a special focus on those age 50 and older. The income limits for eligibility differ from place to place, and can be as high as $100,000 in certain Maryland counties.
Find information about times and locations of the VITA and the Tax-Aide programs at 800-492-0618.
The CASH Campaign's McKinney says that some commercial tax companies are offering free tax preparation this year. But she warns that these offers are promotions that often expire in early February or apply only to super-simple 1040EZ returns.
"That ends up being very few people [who qualify]. Anyone who claims dependents, or gets the earned income tax credit or claims mortgage interest, can't use a 1040EZ," she says. "That's not always so clear in the advertising."
About 60 percent of taxpayers hire someone to do their taxes. After years of complaints about shoddy or shady work by some preparers, Uncle Sam and Maryland are raising the bar.
The IRS now requires all paid preparers filing more than 10 returns to have a Preparer Tax Identification Number. It's also phasing in a testing requirement for certain preparers to make sure they are competent. Make sure your preparer has a PTIN and gives you a copy of your return that's signed by the preparer.
This year, for the first time, paid preparers in Maryland must be registered with the state.
So far, more than 2,000 preparers have registered, and that figure is expected to climb to 3,000 by the end of the month, says Douglas Blackstone, executive director of the Maryland Board of Individual Tax Preparers. Preparers will be required to take continuing education classes, Blackstone says.
"It gives the public something to go on," Blackstone says. "Before registration, they had nothing to go on."
Lawyers, certified public accountants and enrolled agents who represent taxpayers before the IRS are exempt, Blackstone says, because they have their own professional requirements to meet.
Officials expect that consumers will be able to check the board's website at http://www.dllr.state.md.us/license/taxprep by mid-February to find the names of registered preparers.