Preparing your first tax return can be fun and exciting. If it is a simple return, with just one w-2, then hop onto the irs website at irs.gov, and just follow the directions. It’s easy, fast, and free. And if your withholding is correct, then you will probably get a small refund, or pay very little in taxes.
Even if your taxes are a bit more complex, the free software is designed for laymen. Have a few dependents? As long as you know everyone’s social security number and date of birth, and how their name is spelled on the social security card, then go for it. As long as the children lived with you all year, and there is no “other” parent out there that you aren’t married to, and you didn’t live with your folks, and you aren’t under 18, and you weren’t a full time student, and you didn’t have self-employment income, and you don’t have a gambling winning, or a lot of medical bills, and you didn’t move this year, then you will probably be fine.
If you are unsure about any question, however, do not guess. If you don’t know what a term on a form means, do not guess. If you see a box that, when checked, makes your tax go away, and you don’t know just exactly why, do not guess. If there is a field that has to be filled in before it will let you off the page, it is absolutely essential that you know what that field means, and the significance of your response. Do not guess about anything. If you aren’t sure whether or not your child’s name is spelled correctly on the social security card, then look up the card to see, even if it is under your mother’s bed across town. (If your return was filed electronically the year before, then that is a good reference, too.) And if the name is spelled incorrectly, then go to the Social Security Website for instructions on how to correct it.
Much of the time, an exact term can be looked up on the irs.gov website in a PDF format of a relevant publication. All of the forms have instructions that are listed on the website under “forms and publications,” just search the site, and look in the index of the publication, or find the line number of the form in the instructions. Often the instructions will refer you to the publication by number, which will cut down on your search time.
And if you find yourself suddenly deep in a string of searches, save the searches with bookmarks, or favorites, so that you can backtrack if you need to. Print out and underline your items so that you can refer back to it if you need to take a break. Just because you have to look things up doesn’t mean that you need a tax professional, but if you aren’t confident that you understand the tax return, then seriously consider getting some help. The IRS phone number is 1-800-829-1040, but the wait can be long. Many times you can call a professional and get a tax question answered without charge if it is a simple question, and if they have time; after all, that is how they get clients, and that is why they publish their phone numbers, so don’t be afraid to call. If they won’t answer without an appointment, then call someone else, but keep in mind that what you think is a simple question may be a really complicated one. A good tax preparer will be able to answer quickly if it is a simple question, and if it isn’t a simple question, they will be glad to tell you what to expect for a charge if you decide to use them.
And next year, if you have found this to be a rewarding experience, go to a store-front tax school, and learn how the professionals get their answers. If you enjoy preparing your own return, then this is a great way to learn how to do it when your situation gets more complicated than you can handle.