State

File taxes today by midnight ... or else

Tick, tick, tick, tick.

That's the sound of the approaching deadline for filing your taxes today by the stroke of midnight.

Despite e-filing, 24-hour tax-prep centers, easy-to-use computer programs and the lure of refunds, the IRS expects hundreds of thousands of people to file their tax returns barely before today's deadline.

The reason: Americans find the annual ritual only slightly more bearable than attending a funeral, a new survey shows. The survey, by Allianz Life Insurance Company, found that even though the majority of those asked expected to get a refund, they would just as soon not bother.

For those who've procrastinated, the rush to file is on. Many tax preparation companies, including some H&R Block locations, will be open until midnight on tax day.

Julie Hancock, a district manager of H&R Block, said the 14 offices she oversees in Modesto, Ceres, Riverbank and Turlock are busy working with taxpayers who've waited until the last minute.

That's not unusual, Hancock said, but more people seem to have procrastinated this year than previously because of the tough economic conditions in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

"We had a lot of people come in early who walked out when they found out they would have to pay," Hancock said. "It's a shock and difficult to deal with when you're struggling financially.

"Our tax preparation professionals are seeing a lot of people who have lost jobs, lost homes to foreclosures, lost everything," she said. "It just breaks your heart."

Marie Archibeque, owner of Liberty Tax Service at 3848 McHenry Ave. in Modesto, said she's seeing the same thing.

Archibeque agreed that many people just don't have the money to pay the government what they owe, opting to wait as long as possible. She said folks also have had to hold off on getting their taxes prepared because they can't afford the fees.

Still, Archibeque and Hancock say taxpayers have been showing up at their offices this week as the deadline has neared. Both said extended office hours have helped accommodate the surge.

New tax credits appreciated

Despite the disappointment of those who have to find a way to pay, Hancock said many taxpayers have been pleasantly surprised this year to learn they are getting refunds, thanks to all the new tax credits — including those for first-time home buyers — and changes in the tax code.

"We're seeing lots of people leaving our offices with smiles on their faces," Hancock said.

The massive economic recovery package enacted last year included about $300 billion in tax cuts over 10 years. About $232 billion was in cuts for individuals, nearly all in the first two years.

The most generous is the Making Work Pay credit, which gives individuals up to $400 and couples up to $800 for 2009 and 2010. The $1,000 child tax credit was expanded to more families, and the working poor can qualify for as much as $5,657 from the Earned Income Tax Credit.

There also are credits for qualified families who buy new homes or make energy improvements to existing ones, as well as tax breaks to help pay college tuition or buy new cars.

According to the Washington, D.C.- based Tax Policy Institute, 47 percent of people filing taxes as individuals won't pay anything at all because refunds and credits wiped out their tax liability. This is higher than in the past because of federal stimulus laws passed in the last few years.

But even those lucky folks must file returns to get the good news.

IRS spokesman Mike Dobzinski said even if you are in a rush to file, don't let an error slip into your return. It could cost you part of an expected refund, delay the arrival of your cash or worse: The misstep could lead you to believe you owe more than you do.

He said some of the most common errors are incorrect Social Security numbers, entering withholding and estimated tax payments on the wrong lines of the form, and incorrectly figuring out those numbers in the first place.

As always, basic math mistakes — with adding and subtracting — are typical too, he said.

Bee news services contributed to this report.

Bee city editor David W. Hill can be reached at dhill@modbee.com or 578-2336.

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