Tax season often turns into stress season for a lot of Americans.
Whether it’s the pressure of organizing financial documents or fears about getting audited, most adults dread the run-up to the annual April tax filing deadline.
A survey from the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) shows that 58% of U.S. taxpayers worry about filing their taxes.
This year, instead of stressing out over your taxes, why not conquer your tax anxieties once and for all?
Here’s how to solve 10 common tax problems, end your IRS worries, and get on with your life during tax season.
Tax Problem #1 – You Fear Missing the Tax Filing Deadline
The Situation: You’re busy with work, school, family obligations or civic duties. The last thing you have time for is complicated tax paperwork. So you procrastinate about filing your taxes – and get increasingly stressed with each passing day.
The Solution: Get an automatic extension using IRS Form 4868
“If you can’t make the deadline, all you have to do is request an automatic extension by the due date, and make a good faith estimate of what you think your taxes are,” says tax pro Barbara Weltman, an attorney and contributing editor for J.K. Lasser’s Your Income Tax 2016.
Adds Weltman: “You don’t even have to give the IRS a reason why you want the extension. You just have to ask.”
An extension gives you six extra months to file your taxes — without a late filing penalty. But an extension does not grant you more time to pay, so if you’ll owe, pay as much as you can by the filing.
Tax Problem #2 – You Fear Not Having Required Tax Paperwork
The Situation: You paperwork is a mess, so you’re afraid that you won’t have the necessary financial documentation to file your taxes or claim certain deductions. Sound familiar? You’re not alone. A full 20% of adults surveyed by NEFE were worried that they didn’t have the appropriate paperwork needed to file their taxes.
The Solution: Keep your paperwork organized, and in one place
To substantiate income or deductions, use any of the following: W-2 statements, 1099 forms, cancelled checks, bank or credit card statements, receipts, free online invoice templates, payroll deduction records or letters from charities verifying your donations.
“One of the best ways to alleviate fear during tax season is to maintain a complete tax file throughout the year—even a shoebox will work,” says Brent Neiser, CFP® and senior director with NEFE. “It’s common for people to feel that they do not have all of the necessary documents to file and that ultimately they will do something wrong that could lead to an audit down the road.”
“But if you create a checklist of the tax-related tasks you must do and incorporate documents into a file as you receive them,” Neiser says, “you will increase your confidence when it comes time to file your return.”
Tax Problem #3 – You Fear Owing Money to Uncle Sam
The Situation: You’re fretting at the prospect of having to write a big check to Uncle Sam. The NEFE tax poll showed that 26% of Americans worry about the possibility of owing taxes to the federal government.
The Solution: File your taxes anyway and work out a payment plan, if necessary
For many people, the fear of owing taxes may be overblown, since nearly 8 out of 10 taxpayers actually get a tax refund, according to the IRS. But if you do owe taxes, and don’t have the money, rest assured that you have many options to tackle the matter.
One option is to pay your tax bill with a credit card. If possible, use a credit card with a 0% offer or a low interest rate. There will also be a processing fee of around 2% from the IRS payment processor that lets you pay your tax bill online.
If credit isn’t available, you can get an additional 120 days to pay (with no extra fees) via the IRS Online Payment Agreement or by calling the IRS at 800-829-1040.
Need even more time to pay? Simply go online and request an installment agreement for up to six years, provided your total tax debt is less than $50,000. To get approved, you must fill out IRS Form 9465 – Installment Agreement Request.
“When taxes are due and owing, most of the time an installment agreement will be a payment plan for 72 months,” says Deborah Gregory, a former IRS attorney and co-founder of the Gregory Law Group, PLLC in Addison, Texas.
And here’s yet another solution for cash-strapped taxpayers: you may qualify for an offer in compromise, which lets you pay less than the full amount of taxes due.
Tax Problem #4 – You Fear an IRS Audit
The Situation: You’re scared that, for one reason or another, the Internal Revenue Service is going to single out your federal income tax return for an audit.
The Solution: Be realistic and be ready
Statistically, your chances of being audited are very low. Less than 1% of all U.S. taxpayers get audited annually, IRS data show. So calm your fears by thinking realistically and taking comfort in the fact that the overall probability of an audit is actually extremely low.
Should the IRS audit you, there’s still no need to panic. Most audits (71%) are correspondence audits; they’re done by mail. In-person audits are known as field audits.
While an audit of any kind may seem scary, there’s no cause for alarm as long as you have decent record keeping. To be on the safe side and to minimize your worries, hire a CPA or tax attorney to go with you if you need to have an audit before an IRS agent.
Tax Problem #5 – You Fear Getting Hit With an IRS Tax Lien
The Situation: You’re worried because you know you owe back taxes. Maybe you’ve even received a threatening letter or an ominous-sounding notice from the IRS, such as the dreaded “Notice of Federal Tax Lien.”
The Solution: To avoid a lien, don’t ignore IRS collection letters. To get rid of a tax lien, enter into a direct debit installment agreement with the IRS
Just as with audits, only a tiny percentage of U.S. taxpayers face IRS tax liens. In the 2014 fiscal year, the IRS issued 535,580 tax liens – a drop in the bucket compared to the country’s 150 million taxpayers. So don’t work yourself into a frenzy over the possibility of a tax lien.
You can avoid a lien just by facing any unpaid tax situation, working out a payment plan, and not ignoring IRS attempts to contact you or collect overdue taxes.
But let’s assume that your worst fear comes true and the IRS does place a lien against your home or other property.
As long as you’ve filed your taxes and owe $25,000 or less, IRS guidelines let you go into a direct debit installment agreement, where automatic payments are deducted from your checking or savings account. Under this agreement, you must pay off your tax debt within 60 months. Here’s the good news in this whole process: once you make just three payments, you can apply to have the tax lien withdrawn. Voila! Tax lien problem solved.
Tax Problem #6 – You Fear Going to Jail Over Tax Issues
The Situation: You’re shaking in your boots because you haven’t filed tax returns for years, perhaps because you think you owe a lot of taxes, and deep down you worry about getting locked up due to your tax problems.
The Solution: Voluntarily file any past-due tax returns
“The truth is that the IRS rarely criminally prosecutes people for not filing tax returns,” says W. Murray Bradford, CPA and head of the Bradford Tax Institute. “But this can and does happen, especially in egregious cases and those of celebrities and public figures, such as Wesley Snipes.”
The best way to avoid criminal prosecution is to come forward and voluntarily file any delinquent returns, Bradford advises. “The IRS has a time-honored policy that, in general, it will not criminally prosecute for failure to file those taxpayers who come forward and file their past-due tax returns,” he says.
Bradford also notes that the IRS usually shows some mercy to those with a long-standing problem. How so? In general, the IRS requires you to file the most recent six years of tax returns to be in current compliance with your tax return filings, Bradford says.
Tax Problem #7 – You Fear Making a Mistake on Your Taxes
The Situation: About 18% of Americans report anxiety over preparing their returns incorrectly, which may lead to them having to do it again or face the possibility of an audit, NEFE’s study reported.
The Solution: Don’t do your taxes all by yourself
According to the IRS, more than 50 million people do their taxes themselves each year. Many do-it-yourselfers just don’t want to pay for professional help. That’s fine – if you can handle the job solo, without having sleepless nights during tax season.
Most of us, however, aren’t tax experts. So if you don’t hire an accountant, attorney or professional tax preparer, then at least use a tax software program that can help.
“Filing electronically also cuts down considerably on math errors because the computer catches those mistakes,” says Weltman.
Tax Problem #8 – You Fear Leaving Money on the Table
The Situation: You are so worried about running afoul of the IRS that you don’t even take legitimate deductions. As a result, you lament the fact that you’re probably overpaying your taxes or not getting as big a refund as you otherwise could. Some 19% of U.S. taxpayers are concerned that they won’t get the highest refund possible because they did something wrong, NEFE’s tax survey revealed.
The Solution: Claim all deductions and credits to which you are legally entitled
As long as you aren’t blatantly cheating on your taxes, and you have supporting documents to back up your claims, you need not fear the wrath of the IRS. If you get audited and an IRS agent wants to disallow various deductions or asks you to substantiate your deductions, at that point you simply show your documentation.
Tax Problem #9 – You Fear the IRS Contacting You or Appearing at Your Door
The Situation: For some people, just the thought of the IRS contacting them is enough to send shivers down their spines. Perhaps that’s why every year, so many taxpayers fall victim to tax crooks that pose as IRS agents. The scammers phone or email unsuspecting individuals, demanding payment for alleged overdue taxes.
The Solution: Don’t sweat getting a letter from the IRS and don’t fall for con men
“If there are any concerns from the IRS – maybe you forgot to include 1099 income or something – the IRS is going to generate a letter,” says Weltman. She adds: “If you get a phone call or an email from someone claiming to be from the IRS, it’s a scam artist.”
“But most of the contact from the IRS is pretty mild,” she notes. “They’ll just send you a letter, and if they think you owe something more, they’ll send you a bill of what it should be. If you agree, you just pay the money, and that’s the end of that. If you disagree, or there’s something you don’t understand and can’t handle on your own, that’s when you should get professional help.”
Tax Problem #10 – You Fear Tax Fraud or Someone Stealing Your Tax Refund
The Situation: Scam artists are increasingly doing everything from hacking into IRS systems to stealing people’s personal mail in order to get bogus tax refunds in other individuals’ names.
“Income tax fraud is essentially the result of identity theft,” says Howard Schwartz, spokesman for the Connecticut Better Business Bureau. “All a criminal requires to steal your tax refund is your name, date of birth and Social Security number,” Schwartz adds.
The Solution: File electronically as early as possible, and use ID theft prevention
Once you get your W2 paperwork or 1099 forms, file your taxes online right away to reduce the chance of an identity thief using your Social Security number to claim a fraudulent tax refund. Also, don’t carry your Social Security card with you and “don’t give it out just because a business or professional asks for it,” Schwartz says.
Here’s the bottom line: tax season shouldn’t turn into a series of weeks or months when you worry unnecessarily or experience headaches, anxiety and non-stop fears.
“If you feel stressed out about your taxes, work with a professional,” Weltman suggests. “Yes, you’re going to pay for it. But it will give you peace of mind.”