Seven Tax Terrors and How to Overcome Them


Admit it. You're afraid of your 1040. That's OK. A lot of us are. And our tax fears, sometimes irrational, sometimes warranted, cause us to do a lot of dumb things when it comes to our annual returns.

Some people put off filing, some don't file at all. But fear doesn't have to paralyze you. Here are seven common tax terrors, how real they are (or aren't) and how you can overcome them.

1. Afraid I can't do my taxes myself
This fear, unfortunately, is too often true. And it gets truer every year as federal lawmakers add provisions and pages year after year. The tax law publisher CCH Inc. notes that in 1919, the tax code took up 400 pages in its "Standard Federal Tax Reporter." By 2009, CCH filled more than 70,000 pages of that document with tax law intricacies, with nearly 3,000 of those pages being added in the last year alone.

"With a tax code that is now equivalent to more than 33 copies of The New Oxford American Dictionary, it's pretty clear that the average person can't keep up with every rule and regulation, which is why so many people rely on tax software or tax professionals to help make sure they have the information needed to complete their tax returns accurately," says David Bergstein, CPA and tax analyst for CCH CompleteTax software.

"The law is very complicated, and filling out the returns is somewhat mind-boggling," says Robert Simon, partner at Eisner & Lubin in New York. "The media keeps telling everyone how difficult it is and people just get panicky. They sit down and start (the filing process) with all this in the back of their minds. I can understand why people would be afraid to do it."

Such fear, says Simon, is nothing to be embarrassed about. "If you ask congressmen who actually wrote the laws, many don't do their own returns," he says. "They're writing policy, not looking at it from an accounting point of view."

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The way our tax system works also adds to this fear.

"Many people aren't good with numbers. Then once a year they wind up trying to deal with numbers," says Simon. "Any other time you spend money, before you walk out you have someone there telling you what you owe. But when you're doing your taxes, you're doing it yourself. You're telling the government what you owe them."

The remedy: Don't be afraid to ask for help. You have lots of preparer options, from a personal accountant who can fill out your return and help you plan throughout the year to franchise operations that gear up between Jan. 1 and mid-April. If your tax situation is not overly complicated, computer software might be enough to help you file with a bit more confidence. Take a look at your tax needs, then find the tax assistance that best meets them.

2. Afraid I'll overlook a tax break
Even folks who are brave enough to tackle their taxes on their own often face this fear. Again, it's not an unreasonable one. And once again, those folks in Washington, D.C., feed this fear.

Take, for example, the various tax laws created in response to the current economic crisis, such as last year's stimulus payments. Rebate checks were mailed out in 2008 based on 2007 filing information, but the actual law is a tax credit, the Recovery Rebate Credit, available to some taxpayers working on their returns this 2009 filing season. The resulting confusion has already produced rebate-related mistakes on around 15 percent of tax forms filed in January, causing a lot of grief not just for us filers, but also for the Internal Revenue Service.

Afraid of making a mistake that will cost you?...Read more