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Make sure every refund penny counts

March 12, 2009

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— Every year I encourage taxpayers to avoid financial products with fees that cut into the amount of their tax refunds.

For example, I loathe refund anticipation loans, or RALs, which are short-term cash advances backed by a tax refund. In this economy, keeping every penny of your tax refund is even more important because so many are struggling with less income or no income. So don’t nickel-and-dime away your money because you can’t wait for your refund.

As we get closer to the April 15 deadline for filing tax returns, there are a number of things I want to point out.

First, on March 21, the Internal Revenue Service will again hold its Super Saturday, a day in which IRS employees will help prepare basic 2008 tax returns for those who qualify for the earned income tax credit or whose yearly income is less than $42,000. With money tight for a lot of folks, this free service is much needed and much welcomed. Additionally, regardless of income, people can visit the centers if they are unable to pay their tax bill and need help with a payment plan.

“The IRS truly wants to go the extra mile to help taxpayers during these difficult economic times,” said Jim Dupree, IRS spokesman for Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Among other services provided on Super Saturday, tax filers will be able to get copies of tax returns and assistance with letters, notices and levies on their wages or bank.

If you qualify for the service, make sure you bring all the proper documents and tax information such as proof of identification, W-2 form, last year’s tax return and your bank routing numbers and account numbers for direct deposit, which speeds up your tax refund.

A list of IRS offices and partner sites providing assistance across the country on Super Saturday will be available at irs.gov. You can also call the IRS at 1-800-906-9887 for the free assistance locations. IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers will open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time.

Other tax tips:

• Make sure you are filing the right information about the recovery rebate credit. The IRS said an early sampling of tax returns found about 15 percent have errors involving this credit. The recovery rebate credit is a one-time benefit for people who didn’t receive the full economic stimulus payment last year but are eligible now because their circumstances have changed. Some tax filers erroneously claim the credit, do not claim the proper amount of the recovery rebate credit, or mistakenly enter the amount of the stimulus payment they received on the recovery rebate credit line, the IRS said.

You could qualify for the recovery rebate credit if your financial situation changed from 2007 to 2008, you did not file a 2007 tax return, your family gained an additional qualifying child in 2008 or you were claimed as a dependent on someone else’s return in 2007 but cannot be claimed as dependent by someone else in 2008.

• If your mortgage debt was partly or entirely forgiven, you may be able to claim special tax relief. Typically, forgiven debt is considered taxable income. However, because of the housing crisis Congress passed the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007, allowing people to exclude up to $2 million of debt forgiven on your principal residence. The limit is $1 million for a married person filing a separate return. The forgiven debt won’t be taxable for tax years 2007 through 2012.

If your debt is reduced or eliminated, your lender should send you Form 1099-C, which will show the amount of debt forgiven and the fair market value of any property foreclosed.

There is an important exception to this exclusion. To qualify, the debt must have been used to buy, build or substantially improve your principal residence and be secured by that residence. Refinanced debt used to substantially improve your principal residence also qualifies. However, if you used mortgage debt to pay credit card debt, you won’t qualify for the exclusion.

To get this tax relief, you must file IRS Form 982 “Reduction of Tax Attributes Due to Discharge of Indebtedness” and attach it to your federal income tax return.

• Please ignore unsolicited e-mail from anyone claiming to be from the IRS. Don’t click through to any links. The IRS will not contact you by e-mail. If you get an e-mail claiming it’s from the IRS, forward it to phishing@ irs.gov, and then delete it.

Finally, you probably have a lot of questions about your tax situation as a result of the recession. The IRS anticipated such confusion and created a “What If” FAQ page on its Web site. To see the list of questions, go to irs.gov and in the search filed type “What Ifs of an Economic Downturn.”

And can I offer this one last tip? If you can’t pay your taxes, file your tax return anyway and pay what you can. Ignoring the situation will only cost you more money.

This year in particular, the IRS has promised to give its employees more flexibility to work with struggling taxpayers. If that’s you, take advantage of that pledge.

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