Tax season is open, meaning there's another opportunity to: (a) vent about how much you hate this time of year, (b) complain about the complexity of the U.S. code, and (c) whine about your refund being lower than previous years, even though you know that a refund is just the return of the extra money you paid Uncle Sam — on which he paid zero interest.
The Internal Revenue Service is hoping this year's filing season will be less fraught than last year's because the government has remained open (remember the 35-day shutdown of 2018-19?) and it will be the second time that the American taxpayers will be filing under the new rules from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the most significant tax code overhaul in more than three decades.
The deadline to file 2019 tax returns and pay any tax owed is on Wednesday, April 15, and the IRS expects that more than 150 million individual tax returns will be filed. The best way to prepare for this season is to grab last year's return as a guide and then to start organizing your documents (W-2s, 1099s, as well as bank, investment, mutual fund and mortgage company documents) in a file.
The IRS emphasizes that taxpayers may be paying for tax preparation services when there are free options available via the agency's Free File program. Any taxpayer earning $69,000 or less (that's about 100 million Americans, according to the Free File alliance), can find one or more free commercial software products available by visiting IRS.gov/freefile. Additionally, Free File is mobile enabled, which means that you can use your smartphone or tablet to do your taxes.
Some providers, including TurboTax and H&R Block, offer free federal and state tax preparation online.
The IRS also offers Free File Fillable Forms, available to anyone regardless of income. These forms are best suited for taxpayers experienced in preparing returns by hand and who need limited assistance. The IRS notes, "Filing electronically flags common errors and prompts taxpayers for missing information."
The agency is also trying to make sure that taxpayers are aware that the fraudsters will be out on the prowl again this tax season. Be on the lookout for, and tell all your relatives about, the following scams:
Email, text and social media phishing scams: These "official" notices appear to come from the IRS or state tax agencies, but the IRS doesn't initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages or social media channels to request personal or financial information. If you receive anything suspicious, do not click on it. Forward it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters or phone calls: Letters claiming to be from the IRS often demand payment of an overdue tax bill. If this seems sketchy, register at IRS.gov and check your account balance. And no, that's not the IRS calling with angry demands of payment and threats of jail or a lawsuit. The IRS does not make threatening phone calls, nor does the IRS request payment via gift cards or debit cards. Report fraudulent letters and telephone calls to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at TIGTA.gov.
Jill Schlesinger, CFP, is a CBS News business analyst. She welcomes comments and questions at email@example.com.