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Sunday, April 7, 2002


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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Janelle Israel and Associates receptionist Lena Meyer looks over finished tax returns at the firm's Ala Moana office. Business picks up starting in February, when seven-day weeks become the rule until April 15.




Crunch time

Tax preparers are up to their ears
in deductions until next week

Filing right


By Lyn Danninger
ldanninger@starbulletin.com

While green eye shades and bankers' lamps have been replaced by indirect lighting, trickling water, tasteful artwork and flat screen computer technology, the annual visit to the tax accountant for many people remains the most stressful experience of the year.

The surroundings and the equipment may have moved into the new age, but for those who handle deductions and credits for a living, March and early April is still the time when personal lives are put on hold so they can burn the midnight oil preparing returns and counseling anxious taxpayers.

"Some people are incredibly organized, then there are others who just bring in a bag of receipts," said Jan Holl, a tax preparer with Ala Moana tax preparation and consulting firm Janelle Israel and Associates Ltd.

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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Technological improvements have helped tax season become more efficient, tax preparer Jan Holl says.




Holl, who has been preparing tax returns for 18 years, says it's been seven days a week for her firm since the beginning of February. It will remain so until the last return is filed April 15, she said.

Some clients are so late with their tax information that the company even offers a last-minute airport mailing and drop-off service, Holl said.

But because most of the firm's employees have worked together for 10 years or more, the company becomes a well-oiled machine at tax time, she said. Some employees conduct client interviews while others input information, Holl said.

Between improved technology, greater familiarity with tax software programs and faster computers, the hours spent working may actually be fewer than a few years ago, she said.

Still, there are plenty of tasks at home that Holl and her colleagues must put off until after tax season is over.

No matter technological improvements, some things during tax season remain the same, Holl and other tax professionals say.

Many wait until the last minute to file tax returns. Holl said some of her usual clients have yet to make an appearance -- either procrastinating or perhaps attempting for the first time to file their own returns online, she speculated.

As of Thursday, the Internal Revenue Service had received 132,365 Hawaii returns. That's a 17 percent improvement over the same period last year, IRS spokeswoman Shawn George said.

The Internal Revenue Service projects it will receive 566,000 returns from Hawaii residents this year. Last year it received 558,000, George said.

The increased number of early filings this year may be due to more people becoming become familiar with filing online, George said.

This year, the IRS also provides a greater number of links to various e-filing Web sites.

The number of electronic filings originating from tax professionals so far is up 13 percent over last year, she said.

But the really noticeable jump has been with online filing from individuals, up 66 percent compared to last year with 23,287 returns filed online so far, George said.

But while such things as online filing may prompt more individuals to file earlier and reduce math errors, common mistakes such as transposed Social Security numbers and misperceptions about allowable deductions persist.

For example, more than a million Americans may see their tax refunds delayed or reduced this year because they mistakenly claimed the new "rate reduction credit" on their tax forms. These are people who already received a tax check of up to $300 per individual or $600 per couple last summer, and are not eligible for a further reduction.

Changes to the tax laws and the potential for error means you either have to sit down and take time to read IRS publications, or hire a professional to do your taxes for you, said Laurie Gorelangton, who provides bookkeeping and accounting services as well as tax preparation for her clients through her firm, Laurie's Business Services.

"If someone is organized and detail-minded and doesn't mind putting the time in to understand, sure you can do your own taxes," she said. "But you have to have the patience to read booklets. Not everyone does and that can be confusing."

At Janelle Israel and Associates, clients with arms full of paper are coming and going, and will be for more than another week.

"We'll have some who come by as late as 10 p.m. on April 15 to pick up returns," Holl said.

After that, the whole firm will take four days off, she said.


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Filing right

Tips for making sure your income tax return gets processed smoothly:

>> Check the math.

>> Check social security numbers are correct.

>> Make sure return is signed. If filing jointly both spouses must sign.

>> If sending return by mail, make sure to put enough postage on the envelope.

>> Doublecheck deductions.

>> Keep receipts.

>> Consider electronic filing. A lot of common mistakes can be automatically caught.

>> Change of status or name change? Report any changes such as marriage, divorce, new baby, adoption.

>> Need help? The IRS, the state and the AARP jointly sponsor Tax-Aide to assist in doing simple returns. Call (888) 227-7669 toll-free to find the closest site.

>> Running late? You can request an automatic four-month extension but you need to estimate what you owe and send that in. Call (888) 796-1074 to request an extension. The system will give a confirmation number.

>> Can't afford to pay? The IRS now accepts, Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover cards. You can also request a payment plan.

>> Last minute help or question: Check the IRS Web site at www.irs.gov.



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