Smart Tax Planning

How to get your taxes in quickly and safely during the coronavirus pandemic

Key Points
  • Taxpayers have more time to submit federal tax returns for 2019, as the new deadline is July 15.
  • At the same time, tax preparers are dealing with a flurry of new legislation and updates to the tax code that will affect filings.
  • Filers need help at a time when many jurisdictions are ordering residents to stay home.
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Restaurants and concert venues aren't the only places that are off limits due to coronavirus. A visit to your tax professional is probably out of the question, too.

States and localities have been imposing restrictions on social interactions as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to skyrocket: Thirty-eight states and the nation's capital have issued stay-at-home orders, according to NBC News.

Those rules have put accountants and tax preparers in a tough spot. Even though the deadline for 2019 income tax returns has been pushed back to July 15, they're still working to wrap up clients' paperwork in a timely fashion.

Further, accountants are also picking apart the new coronavirus relief law, helping filers comprehend the stimulus payments many are supposed to receive.

"Many places have deemed accounting to be an essential service, since we're implementing relief through the tax code," said Ed Zollars, CPA at Thomas, Zollars & Lynch in Phoenix.

"You have to keep the tax wheels moving in the midst of all this, but many offices are closed: You can't just walk it in," he said.

Filers may want to sit on their returns for three months, but those who get their paperwork out quickly get two benefits.

First, your tax refund for 2019 — if you're due one — will be on its way once your return has been processed. As of March 20, the average refund check was $2,936, according to the IRS.

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Second, your COVID-19 stimulus payment is based on your 2018 or 2019 return.

If your 2019 tax return results in a better outcome for you — be it because you had a baby born that year or maybe you made less income last year compared to 2018 — you'll want to get your paperwork to the IRS soon.

"Believe it, the odds of a return getting processed more quickly are higher if everything is pre-scanned and I can go with it," said Zollars

Safe electronic transfer

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo during a press conference.
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Now that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has issued a stay-at-home order, Jeffrey R. Gentner's clients are submitting documents through a secure portal and having their annual meetings over the phone.

Since the clients booked their time with him by as much as a year in advance, Gentner, an enrolled agent in Amherst, New York, still anticipates completing the returns well before the July 15 due date.

"I can't say we haven't missed a beat, but I think we'll wrap up by the end of April," he said.

More from Smart Tax Planning:
Tax Day is July 15. Why you should get your return in sooner
Where to get your tax return done for free
Why your tax return may spark interest from the IRS

While clients can scan documents to add them to the portal, smartphones can also capture images of key paperwork you'll need to upload securely.

If you still need to download documents, including your mortgage statement or a Form 1099 from your brokerage firm, your institution may be able to provide you with a PDF file for download.

The same goes for Form W-2 with your earnings and tax info. Contact your payroll provider for more details.

Getting acquainted with video chat

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Many taxpayers still prefer a one-on-one chat to go over the return or ask questions, but practitioners are moving the conversations to phones and computers to maintain contact.

"We've used Zoom a lot over the years when connecting with other business partners and current clients," said Lori Carpenter, an enrolled agent at Stadler & Co. in Terre Haute, Indiana.

"Many are also taking phone calls for reviewing and talking through questions," she said.

Paper is a  last resort

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In some cases, paper is the only way to go.

Carpenter's office is still accepting and sharing paperwork, but there's an "intake table" where professionals can pick up documents that have been dropped off.

Further, those items are quarantined before they're handled, she said.

Amended returns  present another hurdle. They must be printed, manually signed by the client and then mailed to the IRS and to state tax authorities.

Not everyone wants to take the chances of having documents sent to their home office.

"I don't want clients sending things to my house," said Brian Streig, CPA and tax director at Calhoun Thomson & Matza in Austin. "If it has to be paper, we're going to wait until the shelter-in-place is over so that we can exchange that paper."