I was really excited about filing my taxes this year. For once, I wasn’t really in need of any pricey things for the house (though I have plenty of wants. Hello, wood stove!), and was rubbing my hands together with the thought of the emergency savings fund I’d soon have in the bank account! Thanks to my husband’s tax-free military pay, and my lowish freelance income when he’s overseas and full-time caring for the boys, we are due a large refund again.

I had a lot of to-dos on my list last week, and the taxes had the biggest payoff, so I tackled them one late night after finishing two other little projects. I could make that week’s e-filing cycle window if I got them done before morning, so I plunged on through, guessing at one number for which I couldn’t find documentation. It was part of the mortgage interest, and I knew I probably wouldn’t make the itemized deduction cutoff, so it wouldn’t have any effect on my taxes, anyway.

My husband’s school expenses were the only new thing to consider; he’s taking online courses while he’s deployed. I didn’t think there would be much tax effect, but I dutifully added the numbers from the statement I had into the appropriate part of the online tax form. It was late, and I rushed. I just wanted to cross the to-do off my list. I could see that checking account cushion materializing before my eyes… submit! submit!

Well, it wasn’t until the next morning I realized that filling in those numbers meant I included Form 8863, and clicked a wrong button on it to boot. Because of the fiscal cliff, the IRS is holding returns that included Form 8863 (American Opportunity Tax Credit and Lifetime Learning Credit) until “mid-February.” Once they do process returns, my error could mean our refund is delayed even longer.

No take-backs in tax filing

Once a return is sent, even if you discover an error two minutes later, you’re sunk for the time being. At least until the return is processed. If you try to send a second return before the first one has been processed, as far as I can tell by the instructions, your return will cause a rip in the space-tax continuum. (I oh-so-briefly considered sending it through a different service without the form, which may or may not be illegal, but is certainly a Bad Idea.)

If you’ve made a mistake, and you realize it right away, you must wait until the IRS has accepted and processed your return until you file an amended return, and it must be filed in paper form (1040x). In most circumstances, this isn’t very long.

I had rolled my eyes and yawned through the “alerts” and the endless box-checking required to file electronically, and next year I’ll stop my snark and just pay attention. I’ll do it in the middle of the day. I’ll leave plenty of time. Though I might have missed that week’s refund cycle window, by including that form I’ll probably miss two or three weeks’ worth, if not more.

Documentation trickles in

Last year, I submitted my taxes quickly, right around January 31, the date most employers and payers are supposed to send tax forms to you, your W-2s and your 1099s. But I received one important piece of tax documentation I hadn’t been expecting a week later (the year is long, for a freelancer, and I’d forgotten).

This year I’ll keep track of all the forms I received, and make a list to check off, including:

  • W-2s from all employers for both partners
  • 1099s for all freelance jobs and other payers (and keep a list of these)
  • Mortgage and, if applicable, second mortgage/home equity loan interest statements
  • Mortgage interest statements from two companies if your mortgage was sold this year (it’s happened to my mortgage so many times I’m used to looking for two!)
  • Taxes-paid statements for real estate and other non-income taxes
  • Interest income statements from retirement funds or savings accounts
  • Capital gains/losses statements from stock accounts
  • Schedule K-1 for any LLCs or partnerships of which you’re a part
  • Form 5498 for IRA rollovers
  • Form 1099-C for any debt charge-offs (if you negotiated to pay off a large debt, for instance)
  • Receipts from tax-deductible donations

Mistakes can cost you (even if you don’t know it)

The big mistakes we’re all worried about making are the ones that will mean we’re paying more taxes, or getting a lower refund, and we never figure them out. It’s a lot less likely you’ll leave out the important documentation and button-clicking if you spend plenty of time.

You have three years to catch mistakes and amend your taxes. If the mistake is in your favor, you will get a refund then. If you get it wrong, you have to pay interest and fees (the government doesn’t owe you, sadly, if it’s the other way). But not just time value of money is working against you; inertia is. If you’ve already made it once through the chore of taxes, it’s hard to do it again, even for several hundred dollars. After all, that money is theoretical.

Take your time

How much time? The average seems to be a whopping 22 hours; yep, as much as working half-time at it for a week. This means that you should not try to fit it in between essay-writing and 2:30 a.m.

If you, like me, could carve out time in the daylight hours to do this, I’d suggest you set aside two afternoons or early mornings (whenever you work best) just to gather your paperwork together. Perhaps you’ve already done one session near the end of January, and save the next one until the second week in February, just to make sure you catch all the trickles.

Then, on a weekend day without distractions like Super Bowl parties or gardening — pick a nice, blustery, rainy day — sit down and go through the whole deal. Finish it up all the way to the alerts (if you’re filing online). Run them once.

Come back the next day

Then, come back the next day with a new cup of coffee or kombucha or whatever gets you jazzed in the morning. Look at it again. Print it out before you press “submit” just to see all the forms you’ve generated. It’s amazing what you can see just running your finger down a number of columns; if you don’t understand anything, look it up.

Then press “submit.” You might even have your taxes processed before mine are. I’ve learned my lesson!

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