Organizing Your Taxes

Does this scene sound familiar? It's April 7. You haven't seen the top of your dining room table in two weeks because of the piles of paid bills, receipts, canceled checks, and unidentified cash register receipts covering it. Your head pounds and your stomach churns as the countdown to April 15 begins.

You might hate to pay taxes, think the system is unfair, dislike the forms, and even stage a mini-tax rebellion, but in the end the tax man cometh ? with penalty if you're not careful! The key to your survival is taking an organized approach to this unavoidable task.

There are really two issues here. Number one, of course, is getting the information together for this year's tax return. Number two is developing a strategy, which will eliminate the panic you're feeling now next year ? and now is the easiest time to do that too. Consider these tips:

? If you use a tax advisor, make an appointment to get together well before April 15. For the future, do it before the end of the tax year, and you may be able to save on your tax bill.

? Designate a specific, easily accessible place to keep all the information relevant to your tax return.

? Pay tax-deductible items by check or credit card whenever possible. If you have many tax-deductible items, get a separate credit card for those expenses.

Now, for this year:

Step 1: Collect all the records you can find: canceled checks, credit card receipts and statements, canceled checks, cash register receipts, calendars, and any articles or other information you may have collected with information about what you can deduct. (Use Post-it? Flags to highlight important information.) If you're not sure, discuss with your accounting the critical information to include with your tax return, including documents to support any wages or other income received as well as mortgage interest paid.

Step 2: Separate all the papers into appropriate categories. Put each one into a separate container ? large envelope, plastic basket or shoebox. Labeling each category with a Post-it? Note will make it easier to adjust your category names if you change your mind as you proceed. Since you will probably need more than one sitting to complete your taxes, these labeled containers make it easier to clear your work area, if necessary, and to find your place when you are ready to continue.

Step 3: Take one category at a time and eliminate (or staple together) any duplicate receipts. If you need to correlate your expenses with your calendar in order to prove tax-deductible expenses, such as in the case of entertainment, put all receipts in chronological order to speed up the process. (Use a different color Post-it? Flag for each deductible category.)

Step 4: Now you are ready to begin entering the information on the tax forms, into your computer program, or to take the information to your accountant. (Many accountants will provide a worksheet of compiling information.)

Once you've finished filing your return, the next consideration is how long to keep the material you've collected. The simple answer is to keep whatever you need to persuade the IRS that everything on your return is accurate, and hang on to the evidence for as long as the IRS has the right to question your return. But I'm sure you wanted a more practical answer!

Ordinarily that's three years from the due date for the return, including extensions, to assess any additional tax. But a return can be audited for six years if the IRS suspects the taxpayer has neglected to report substantial income. If fraud is suspected, there is no time limit.

Your record keeping system doesn't have to be elaborate or sophisticated. What is more important is to have a system ? and the discipline to keep it up to date.

Make sure to keep tax information separated by year. If you have a minimum amount of back-up material, one file folder may be sufficient. Staple together all information for each itemized deduction. Label it clearly with a Post-it? Note. Otherwise, use separate file folders or envelopes for each category. If you run a business and have a very large amount of material, use one storage box for each year. Make sure to label the outside of the box! Put all boxes together. As you put in this year's box, you can remove the box with information you no longer need to keep. Sorting your back-up materials will be easy to do right after you filed this year's return when the categories are fresh in your mind. If you are audited, it will be easy to provide documents to support your tax return.

In addition, consider these tax tips:

? If you write off the cost of a business car, keep the logbook in which you recorded your trips as well as evidence of the costs you incur.

? If you claim as a dependent someone who is not your child, keep a separate file for the evidence that shows you provide more than half of that person's support.

? Keep information that relates to the purchase of all homes at least six years after the sale of the last house. This includes your title, deed of purchase, and information about your home's purchase price, sales price, capital improvements and repairs.

© Barbara Hemphill is the author of Kiplinger's Taming the Paper Tiger at Work and Taming the Paper Tiger at Home and co-author of Love It or Lose It: Living Clutter-Free Forever. The mission of Hemphill Productivity Institute is to help individuals and organizations create and sustain a productive environment so they can accomplish their work and enjoy their lives. We do this by organizing space, information, and time. We can be reached at 800-427-0237 or at www.ProductiveEnvironment.com

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