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Tax deadline can spread panic

Okay, procrastinators. Time is running out. Tuesday is the deadline for filing your federal income tax returns.

The good news: With very few tax changes for 2013, there aren't any big head-scratchers to sort out this year. But it's still easy to trip yourself up with math errors or filing mistakes or even by forgetting to report your fantasy football winnings.

Here are some last-minute items worth noting:

DON'T PANIC, BUT DO FILE: "A lot of people panic this time of year," said California Franchise Tax Board spokeswoman Denise Azimi, either because they can't pay what they think they owe, or they don't have all of their paperwork together.

If that's you, don't avoid Tuesday's deadline. You're better off filing the return on time and paying what you can, or asking for an automatic extension. (See accompanying story.)

AVOID THE EASY ERRORS: One of the biggest mistakes, especially for those filing a paper return, is basic math. Double-check everything before you file.

If you're filing an electronic form, the math computations will be done for you. But you can still make errors by inputting the wrong Social Security number or tax-filing status (married, head of household, filing jointly, etc.) or by mistyping your bank routing number for direct deposit of a refund.

Another common error is misstating what you paid last year in estimated tax payments. And above all, don't forget to sign and date your return.

DON'T OVERLOOK TAX CREDITS: When filing, be sure to look for federal tax credits that might apply, such as home energy-efficiency improvements, college costs, child care expenses and charitable donations.

One of the commonly overlooked credits is the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, known as the EITC. Designed to help low-income working adults, it's a refundable credit, so even if you don't owe taxes, you could still get money back in your pocket. It's based on income and family size, and it can be as much as $6,000. Generally, your 2013 earned income must be below $51,567 for couples filing jointly with three children, or less than $14,340 for a single person with no children. To see whether you qualify, search for the "EITC Assistant" tool on the IRS.gov website. The average credit last year was $2,300.

FANTASY FOOTBALL INCOME?: Another source of tax return errors is not reporting all of your income, even that from an online fantasy football league.

"If you don't report the income, you can expect to hear from the IRS," said Sandra Block of Kiplinger personal finance magazine. If you received a Form 1099-MISC for casino winnings or a Form 1099-DIV for dividends, for instance, be assured that the IRS received a copy, too.

"The IRS views fantasy football in the same way it views gambling and lottery winnings, which are also taxable," said Block.

THINK TWICE ON REFUNDS: "As much as people love getting a big check from the IRS, it's not good money management," said Kiplinger's Block. "By adjusting your withholding, you can give yourself an automatic raise and use the money to pay off debt or increase your retirement savings." She recommends asking your employer to adjust your W-4 form so that you'll immediately get more take-home pay that can be allotted to savings or debts.

And, she noted, being owed a refund can make you vulnerable to fraud due to identity theft, which has been a nagging problem for the IRS.

Last-minute tax-filing help

Internal Revenue Service: Call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 or go online to www.irs.gov. The IRS has tax-filing videos on YouTube and a free mobile app (IRS2Go) for iPhone and Android phones.

VITA/TCE sites: Get free tax-preparation help through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs, held at various community locations. Volunteers answer questions and will help file returns, primarily for those with incomes below $52,000, the disabled and those over age 60. Search IRS.gov by ZIP code to find the nearest locations.

Tax deadline can spread panic 04/11/14 [Last modified: Sunday, April 13, 2014 7:56pm]
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