NEW YORK (AP) - For many people filing U.S. tax returns - especially those doing it for their first time - it can be a daunting task that's often left to the last minute. But if you want to avoid the stress of the looming deadline, start getting organized as soon as possible.
Whether you do your taxes yourself, go to a tax clinic or hire a professional, navigating the tax system can be complicated and stressful. Courtney Alev, a consumer financial advocate for Credit Karma, recommends you go easy on yourself.
"Take a breath. Take some time, set out an hour, or go through it over the weekend. You'll hopefully see that it's a lot simpler than you think," Alev said.
If you find the process too confusing, there are plenty of free resources to help you get through it.
Here are some things you need to know:
Taxpayers have until April 18 to submit their returns from 2022.
While the required documents might depend on your individual case, here is a general list of what everyone needs:
• Social Security number
• W-2 forms, if you are employed
• 1099-G, if you are unemployed
• 1099 forms, if you are self-employed
• Savings and investment records
• Any eligible deduction, such as educational expenses, medical bills, charitable donations, etc.
• Tax credits, such as child tax credit, retirement savings contributions credit, etc.
To find a more detailed document list, visit the IRS website.
Tom O'Saben, director of tax content and government relations at the National Association of Tax Professionals, recommends gathering all of your documents in one place before you start your tax return and also having your documents from last year if your financial situation has drastically changed.
Theresa Grover, site coordinator for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, also recommends taxpayers create an identity protection PIN number with the IRS to guard against identity theft. Once you create a number, the IRS will require it to file your tax return.
You can either file your taxes online or on paper. However, there is a great time difference between the two options. Paper filing can take up to six months for the IRS to process, while electronic filing cuts it down to three weeks.
For those who make $73,000 or less per year, the IRS offers free guided tax preparation that does the math for you. If you have questions while working on your tax forms, the IRS also offers an interactive tax assistant tool that can provide answers based on your information.
Beyond the popular companies such as TurboTax and H&R Block, taxpayers can also hire licensed professionals, such as certified public accountants. The IRS offers a directory of tax preparers across the United States.
The IRS also funds two types of programs that offer free tax help: VITA and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly program (TCE). People who earn $60,000 or less a year, have disabilities or are limited English speakers, qualify for the VITA program. Those who are 60 or older, qualify for the TCE program. The IRS has a site for locating organizations hosting VITA and TCE clinics.
If you have a tax problem, there are clinics around the country that can help you resolve these issues. Generally, these tax clinics also offer services in other languages such as Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese.
Many people fear getting in trouble with the IRS if they make a mistake. Here's how to avoid some of the most common ones:
• Double check your name on your Social Security card.
When working with clients, O'Saben always asks them to bring their Social Security card to double-check their number and their legal name, which can change when when people get married.
"You may have changed your name but you didn't change it with Social Security," O'Saben said. "If the Social Security number doesn't match to the first four letters of the last name, the return will be rejected and that will delay processing."
• Search for tax statements when you have opted out of paper mail.
Many people like to opt out of snail mail but when you do, it can also include your tax documents.
"If you didn't get anything in the mail doesn't mean that there isn't an information document out there that you need to be aware of and report accordingly," O'Saben said.
• Make sure you report all of your income.
If you had more than one job in 2022, you need the W-2 forms of each - not just the one from the job you ended the year with, says Christina Wease, interim director of the tax clinic at Michigan State University.
Additionally, if you have a business that uses PayPal or Venmo as a service, it must be reported in your tax return. For 2022, the use of those services needs to be reported if they amounted to 200 transactions in the calendar year and more than $20,000 in sales from goods or services.
Mistakes happen, and the IRS takes different approaches depending on each case. In general, if you make a mistake or you're missing something in your tax records, the IRS will audit you, Alev said. An audit means that the IRS will ask you for more documentation.
"Generally, they are very understanding and willing to work with folks. You're not going to get arrested if you type in the wrong field," Alev said.
Wease explains that you can file taxes late and, if you were supposed to get a refund, you might still get it. If you haven't filed for years and you owe money to the IRS, you may be hit with penalties but the agency will can work with you to manage payment plans.
Tax season is prime time for tax scams, according to the IRS. These scams can come via phone, text, email and social media. The IRS uses none of those means to contact taxpayers.
Sometimes scams are even operated by tax preparers so it's important to ask lots of questions. If a tax preparer says you will get a refund that is larger than what you've received in previous years, for example, that may be a red flag, O'Saben said.
If you can't see what your tax preparer is working on, get a copy of the tax return and ask questions about each of the entries.
It's always good practice to keep a record of your tax returns, just in case the IRS audits you for an item you reported years ago. Both Wease and O'Saben recommend keeping copies of your tax return documents for up to seven years.