Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tax Weekend and Feeling Old

More than a few people are feeling older this weekend. I say this because the U.S. income tax deadline is the middle of April, and this weekend is the last chance most taxpayers have to get their tax forms together before the deadline. The simple accounting that goes into a tax form is the kind of thing that makes most people feel old — putting transactions in categories and adding them up, with hundreds of details and tens of thousands of rules to observe, and real money at stake if you make a single error at any point along the way. And the time pressure is real: if you look at the tax law, in general you are better off with a complete and filed form with errors that you hope are not too serious than you are if you miss the deadline. If your form has errors, you may, in the worst case, have to persuade a judge that these were honest last-minute mistakes from a taxpayer who is not so skilled with taxes. But if you do not file on time, even a judge cannot save you.

Of course, it is more than just the difficulty of the forms themselves. There are all the things you miss out on while you are hunched over a table covered with letter-sized papers. Just one example from Twitter three evenings ago, during the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony:

Things are not necessarily better for the people to whom tax forms are simple and obvious, the natural accountants among us. A tax professional might prepare a hundred people’s taxes this weekend, a mind-bending task that researchers say results in almost the same error rate that you see when people do their own tax forms. The advantage of hiring a professional is not getting everything right, but getting it done faster and with less fuss.

Some people, of course, have much simpler taxes, but that is not necessarily a good thing. For the college graduate who managed to string together three temporary jobs over the course of the year, the tax form that combines this income is not too much to ask, but adding the numbers together and double-checking and finding that one is officially living below the poverty line can be a sinking feeling. Tax forms are nothing if not nosy. It is on line 1 that Form 1040 asks how your family is doing. If you were eager to tell the government that your only child died or that your marriage is over, this is where you do it. And the form doesn’t get much better as you go along.

I fell into tax weekend myself in spite of filing my forms two months ago. A letter arrived yesterday from the IRS asking me to fill in one key line I mistakenly left blank on schedule A. The computer-generated letter is careful to explain that they don’t want an explanation, just the corrected schedule. And so, I have an envelope going out to the IRS tomorrow morning too, along with 100 million other people. It looks bad that my mistake is on Schedule “A” — I didn’t get very far with my attempt at an error-free tax filing, did I? But I know I will make these mistakes sometimes and I am glad there is a system to sort it all out.

In the end, it is probably a good thing that tax filings go out with a relatively unforgiving deadline. It is bad enough that so many people postpone tax work until April when it can more easily be done in February and March. With a softer deadline the procrastinators among us might still be worrying about their tax forms when summer comes. The United States might lack the political will to address the emotional mess that the tax system entails, but at least we can put tax season behind us every year.