As the deadline approaches for filing tax returns, the process of claiming a tax break created by the stimulus package has proved to be more work than millions of people had bargained for.
The new tax credit, championed by President Obama as a follow-through on his campaign promise to provide broad-based tax relief, affects 95 percent of all Americans by cutting $400 from the total tax bill for individual filers and $800 for married couples.
In an effort to jump-start the sputtering economy by putting the money into people’s pockets as quickly as possible, the government also decided to pay the credit upfront and instructed employers to reduce the amount of federal withholding deducted from workers’ paychecks over the last year.
But what millions of taxpayers did not realize was that to have the credit deducted from the total amount of taxes owed, they are required to complete a new form, Schedule M. For millions of retirees, the procedure also requires an additional step because they have to deduct the tax break, known as the “Making Work Pay” credit, from other tax credits they may have received.
While either of those procedures takes only a few minutes, I.R.S. officials said that the unfamiliarity with the process of claiming the credit had led to errors in more than four million of the 82 million returns processed as of this week. The government expects to receive 60 million more returns by the filing deadline on Thursday, so it is possible that millions of additional returns will also contain similar errors.
The I.R.S. said its examiners would correct those errors, file the Schedule M for the taxpayers who neglected to do so and recalculate the filers’ taxes to reflect the credit. But the sheer volume of errors involving the tax credit has added to the workload of the agency and could result in delays of several weeks or more for taxpayers whose returns were incomplete.
“We’re making sure people get the credits they are entitled to,” said Michelle Eldridge, a spokeswoman for the I.R.S. “But it’s causing delays.”
While mistakes involving the tax credit are by far the most common error tax examiners are encountering this year, I.R.S. officials say that the error rate — less than 6 percent — is not surprising for any new provision in the tax code. The Obama administration also contends that, despite the extra paperwork for taxpayers and the delayed returns, the tax credit succeeded in nudging the economy toward recovery by injecting $65 billion into circulation quickly.
But putting the credit into effect has nonetheless been challenging.
In November, the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration reported that the I.R.S. instructions regarding the credit might have led some employers to reduce withholdings too much. As a result, the audit warned, 15 million or more taxpayers might find that their refunds would be smaller than expected, or they might even owe taxes.
I.R.S. officials say that because of a variety of other tax credits and changes to the code, those problems have not materialized and refunds are actually larger this year than last. But the complications involving taxpayers filing for the Making Work Pay credit have been widespread.
Some filers neglected to claim the credit on line 63 of their 1040 forms or to file the Schedule M. Social Security recipients and federal retirees who received $250 stimulus checks were also required to deduct that amount from their Making Work Pay tax credits, adding to the confusion.
“Even those of us who do it for a living are puzzled by this thing, so people doing their own returns have no idea what to do,” said Ron Lee, an accountant in Davenport, Iowa. “It’s good intentions to get the money out there and reduce taxes. But it creates an accounting headache.”
Amy Brundage, a White House spokeswoman, said the Obama administration had made extensive efforts to alert taxpayers to the new credits. In March, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and the commissioner of the I.R.S., Douglas H. Shulman, appeared at a White House event to publicize the new tax credits. The Obama administration also placed a tax-saving tool on the White House Web site to help taxpayers understand which credits they could claim.
“Helping the American people understand tax relief they are eligible for is an administration priority,” Ms. Brundage said in a written statement, “and we will continue to work to help the American people navigate this process during these difficult economic times.”
With millions of last-minute filers yet to prepare their returns, I.R.S. officials advised taxpayers to consult with www.irs.gov, or the telephone help line, at (800) 829-1040, if they need assistance.
“And the No. 1 way to reduce errors and get your refund as quickly as possible is to file electronically,” said Ms. Eldridge of the I.R.S.