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Q&A: If federal government shuts down, do I still have to file taxes April 18?

The threat of a federal government shutdown comes less than two weeks till tax day. But don't expect a reprieve. You're still on the hook — even though the IRS might not be able to answer your questions or process your refund. One thing it would still do? Cash your checks.

Would I still have to file my tax return by April 18?

Yes, says Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman. "File your tax returns," he told reporters Wednesday. A tiny silver lining: You do have three more days than normal this year. That's because a District of Columbia holiday — Emancipation Day, which celebrates the freeing of slaves in D.C. — falls on Friday, April 15. Otherwise, the normal rules apply: Your return must be postmarked no later than April 18. You can request an extension, but you still must pay what you owe or face penalties.

Does it matter whether I file electronically or on paper?

Yes. To avoid a delay in your tax refund, file electronically. Those tax returns would still be processed if there's a shutdown, said Michael Dobzinski, the IRS spokesman for Florida. Meanwhile, the agency wouldn't be able to process paper-filed tax returns, delaying refunds. "If there is a shutdown, tens of millions of hardworking taxpayers will have to wait months to get their refunds," said Patrick Cox, CEO of Taxmasters Inc. Only about a third of returns were filed on paper last year, according to the IRS, and it's expected to be even less this year.

Would the IRS still cash my check?

Yes. Shulman told a House subcommittee last week that the agency's old plan, developed during the 1990s, called for depositing checks but not actually processing returns. Sandra Salstrom with the U.S. Treasury confirmed Thursday that's still the case. Why? The government needs the money. "If they're not going to open the returns and process the checks, they would run into the debt ceiling fairly quickly," Lou Crandall, chief economist of Wrightson ICAP, told Bloomberg News. Still, that doesn't sit well with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. "That needs to be fixed," he said Thursday. "Otherwise it's heads the IRS wins; and tails the taxpayer loses."

Would the IRS still answer my tax questions?

Perhaps not, according to a memo from the Office of Management and Budget released Thursday by Nelson's office. "Many taxpayers would be unable to receive service from the IRS to help them meet their tax obligations," it said. "For example, 400 walk-in service centers would be closed." However, tips and information would still be available from IRS.gov, not to mention private tax preparers, nonprofits and trained volunteers. "This is business as usual for us," said Gene King, a representative of H&R Block. "We've managed many instances of late legislation, filing delays and other operational challenges during our 56 years of preparing taxes."

Would local taxpayer assistance centers stay open?

It's not clear whether centers at 9450 Koger Blvd. in St. Petersburg and 3848 W Columbus Drive in Tampa would stay open during a shutdown. "Operational plans are still being finalized," Dobzinski said. To be safe, seek help now. They're open weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and are also scheduled to be open Saturday, April 16 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. There's no appointment needed to speak to someone in person. For more information about tax help, call them at (727) 568-2459 or (813) 348-1831. There are also volunteers who help low- to moderate-income taxpayers. To find the VITA site nearest you, call toll-free 1-800-906-9887 or visit IRS.gov. If you're 60 or older, there's even more assistance. Call toll-free 1-800-829-1040 or 1-888-227-7669.

How many people still need to file their taxes?

Less than half of all taxpayers, according to the IRS. Two weeks ago, it had already received more than 82 million individual income tax returns, nearly 60 percent of an expected 141 million. About a quarter of taxpayers normally wait till the last two weeks to file.

Information from Bloomberg News was used in this report. Becky Bowers can be reached at bbowers@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8859.

Q&A: If federal government shuts down, do I still have to file taxes April 18? 04/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 7, 2011 8:46pm]
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