Tax Tips - From an Insider (Updated)

Hello, sports fans! In the time I've been gone from blogging, I've taken a position with the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service. What I thought would be a fairly mind-numbing job doing data entry is proving to be a pleasant challenge, catering to the part of me that loves meeting and exceeding goals. Now I can't help you with questions about your taxes -- deductions, what forms, etc. -- nor will I do your taxes! -- but I can give you tips on expediting the processing of your return.

1. E-file. You don't need a fancy program to do it; you can do it for free on the IRS website. (http://www.irs.gov/) An e-filed tax return will have almost no human data inputting; it will pretty much bypass at least three or four entire departments during processing. It will also cut out any delay in mailing (and save trees, carbon emissions, and postage!). As of 4/1/09, people who were e-filing were receiving their refunds via direct deposit in as little as 7 days.

2. Use the free, downloadable IRS .pdf files and type into them (or use whatever is loaded onto programs like TurboTax, if you want to spend the money). Typing your return eliminates illegible or questionable characters, and no illegible characters means one less department in processing. Use the form for everything except your name & address if the IRS mailed you a packet of forms that includes a label. If we sent you a label, use it. (Side note: forms printed out from TurboTax are often flagged for special scrutiny, since technically they aren't official Federal forms although we readily accept them... and because there is a high instance of tax fraud using those programs.)

3. Use the IRS label for your name & address, even if there are changes. There are codes on the IRS label that us data processors use to expedite your return. If you don't use the label, we have to spend more time keying in your information and searching databases. The more we have to key in, the greater the risk of human inputting error. If there are changes -- name, address, etc. -- neatly write it on the label.

4. If you decide that writing it out is your preferred way to do your taxes, don't think you can only do it once. The forms are easy to get and you can get an unlimited supply, so use one for a rough draft and another for your "final." Take the time to write neatly on your final copy -- again, avoid illegible characters. (You might think it is clear enough, but if there is ANY question about a character, we have to code it a certain way and your return will make a detour to the department that sends you those nice letters about a problem with your taxes.)

5. Don't use white-out. Seriously. If you use white-out, especially in certain areas, your return will automatically be kicked to the tax examiners. This will delay the processing of your return by a week or more. Since the forms are so easily found, print out another copy and rewrite everything. An extra 5 minutes of your time can mean you get your refund a week or two sooner.

6. Make sure everything is filled in that needs to be filled in. Most important: Social Security Numbers! On the flip side, if it doesn't need to be filled in, leave it blank. If you don't have a spouse, dependents, etc., don't put "N/A" (in any incarnation). If you don't have a money amount for a field, don't fill it with zeros. We can process your return so much faster if we don't have to hunt for your money amounts in a sea of 0s.

7. Check your math. I know, this seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many tax returns we see that don't add up correctly. Our computers don't like it, and we have to spend time verifying the error isn't ours before overriding the system. It also means your return will be delayed since it will go to the tax examiners to figure out your error -- or to contact you for more information.

8. If the IRS doesn't ask for it, don't send it. This includes, but is not limited to: the worksheets you use to finish certain forms, statements from you explaining something, copies of Social Security cards, copies of death certificates/autopsy reports for deceased tax payers (use the form for information about a deceased tax payer instead), bank statements, miscellaneous paperwork your tax preparer gives you, etc. I have seen attached to 1040s all of the above, and we don't need it. It wastes our time flipping through all that unnecessary crap to make sure we get what we need so you get your money, and it increases the likelihood that we'll miss a form because it was buried amongst your statements from TIAA/CREF.

9. Use the direct deposit option. You will receive your return at least a week, if not two or three weeks, sooner. Just because you mail your return to a certain center doesn't mean it gets processed there, and checks come from a whole different place entirely.

10. When attaching your W2s and 1099s to your return, please, please, please only staple them to the first page! Many people staple them through the entire packet, and then we can't get to information we need easily. Believe it or not, but our desks come stocked solely with a computer that has one program on it. That's it; no staple removers, staplers, tape, paper clips, anything to reattach your W2s/1099s if they come off when we have to rip open your returns to see the backside of your 1040 -- especially that special line that says "This is the amount you want refunded to you!"

11. This seems obvious, but make sure your various forms are in order, and that if it is a two or three page form (such as Schedule E, Profit/Loss from Real Estate) that you put page two AFTER page one. Out-of-order pages happen more often than you'd think.

12. Making a copy of your handwritten tax return is a good idea. Sending us the Xerox and keeping the original is not a good idea, especially if the Xerox is bad. Even worse is making a copy on your home color scanner/copier/fax/coffee maker that prints out a copy at 72% size. I had one of those; the numbers were practically microscopic. Needless to say, it took me way too long to process that return.

13. If you have a question, ask! We all joke about the stigma of the IRS, but really, most everyone who works for the agency is nice. The IRS really does want to help you, and the customer service people would much rather answer your questions than the majority of the calls they get from, well, quite unhappy tax payers. Asking up front increases your chances of filing an error-free return, which will then zip right through processing.

April 15th is fast approaching, so get out those calculators and get your returns filed if you haven't already done so! Data transcribers process a return (and all accompanying Schedules) every 2 minutes. Following these simple, even obvious, tips will help us keep that pace so you get your money faster!