You've lost your job, and your mortgage company is threatening foreclosure. Then, when it seems that things can't get any worse, the tax man comes calling. What's a person to do? • Don't ignore the Internal Revenue Service. • "The most important thing for people to do even if they owe money is to go ahead and file that return," says Terry Lemons, a senior spokesman for the IRS. • The average refund last year was $2,429. "That's a lot of money for people who are facing hardship," he said. "We encourage people to take a look at their taxes, file electronically and use direct deposit."
You can get your refund in 10 days that way, vs. four weeks or longer if you file by mail.
In these tough economic times, taxpayers may find that they're due a larger refund than they expected.
The IRS considers taxation a "pay as you go" system, said Bob Meighan, vice president for the Consumer Tax Group, part of Intuit Inc., which publishes the tax-preparation software TurboTax. "Most Americans are current in tax liability as they are earning income."
But if your annual income declined because you lost a job or had other changes in your financial situation, your tax bill is likely to be lower, and you could be due a larger refund.
You might find yourself eligible for a broad range of credits that you didn't qualify for before. Among them: the earned income credit, education credits and the recovery rebate credit.
The stimulus checks that people received last year actually were an advance payment on the recovery rebate credit. Initial eligibility was determined based on 2007 tax returns.
If your financial circumstances changed, you may qualify for the rebate now, even if you didn't when the initial payments were made.
If you did get a check, you also may qualify for an additional credit if you added a child to your family in 2008.
Through 2008, Treasury processed more than 118 million stimulus payments totaling about $96 billion. The IRS expects about $10 billion in recovery rebate credits in 2009.
The credits are $600 for those filing individually, $1,200 for joint filers and $300 for each child.
The earned income tax credit was designed to help low-income workers by offsetting part of their Social Security and Medicare taxes. Since it boosts take-home pay, it is meant to provide an incentive to work. The maximum income limit is $41,646. That declines based on filing status and the number of children in the household. The maximum credit for 2008 is $4,824, up from $4,716 in 2007.
Lemons says the IRS is paying close attention to the hard times and wants Americans to take advantage of every credit and deduction due them.
For those who owe back taxes, the IRS is offering some assistance.
"We need to ensure that we balance our responsibility to enforce the law with the economic realities facing many American citizens today," IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman said in a statement as the filing season began. "We want to go the extra mile to help taxpayers, especially those who've done the right thing in the past and are facing unusual hardships."
Taxpayers who lost jobs, rely solely on Social Security or welfare, or who face "devastating illness or significant medical bills" may be able to have collection actions suspended.
For those facing financial hardship, missing a payment on an installment agreement with the IRS won't necessarily result in suspension of the agreement. The agency said people should call the IRS to discuss their situation.
The IRS has put together a series of answers to "What If" questions to help taxpayers in financial distress. They can be found on its Web site at www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=201853,00.html.