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Taxing treadmill


Taxing treadmill

Americans without accountants don't have to go it alone in preparing their taxes

Compatibility surveys, matchmaking services, and especially pastoral counseling all have their place, but the real test of matrimonial longevity is-can a husband and wife jointly fill out complicated income tax forms? For richer and for poorer, sure, but what about when a middle income couple is surrounded by W-2s, 1099s, schedules A through E and four-digit forms for depreciation, amortization, casualty loss after totaling a car, and much besides?

The easy way to avoid wading through the plethora of pages is to hire an accountant, an inevitable step for the very wealthy-but for the rest of us it seems vaguely un-American. Did Pike hire someone to climb Pike's Peak? Would a pastoral author hire a ghostwriter? (Don't answer that.) What's the satisfaction of having someone else fill out a crossword puzzle for you? No, for 31 years now Susan and I have filled out our own income taxes, even as they have grown more complicated.

God's grace is the great saver of marriage under taxing frustration, but He sometimes uses secondary means. Tax software-programs that let you put in data and then do the sifting and computation for you-can be a big help. We've used TurboTax over the past decade, and it's probably the most popular such product. First-time users will want to follow the step-by-step approach that smoothly puts items in their proper place.

For those seeking to go computer-less or to improve their own understanding even as they make use of software wizardry, some tax handbooks come in handy. I looked this year at two general books for individual taxpayers, two for small businesses, and one for ministers.

The 2007 TurboTax Income Tax Handbook (St. Martin's Griffin) goes right along with the popular computer program, and it's useful for novices. Those peering into nuances, though, will probably prefer J.K. Lasser's 1001 Deductions & Tax Breaks 2007, by Barbara Weltman. For example, it clearly explained how to figure depreciation amounts of a car used partly for business and partly for personal use.

The books also point out deductions for higher-education tuition/fees and for teachers, who can claim up to $250 of out-of-pocket expenses for classroom supplies ranging from chalk to books. A new change worth noting: Individuals 70 or older can transfer up to $100,000 directly from an individual retirement account to a charity without paying any tax.

Working through that is not hard once you get the hang of it. Those who rely on TurboTax but then incorporate a small business, though, have to meander through the complexities of filling out an 1120, the business equivalent of a 1040. Such filers might run to J.K. Lasser's Small Business Taxes 2007, also written by Barbara Weltman.

That book notes, for example, that a small business can deduct the costs of the lunches it provides onsite without having the value of those lunches added to employees' paychecks. But Frederick W. Daily's Tax Savvy for Small Business (Nolo) explains well the opportunity for small businesses to set up corporate medical reimbursement and educational assistance plans, and that's the book I'd recommend.

Pastors (and the deacons who are supposed to shelter them from pressures that bring out the sinfulness common to taxpaying man) have particular concerns with parsonages and all the expenses of hearth and home. Worth's Income Tax Guide for Ministers by B.J. Worth (Evangel Publishing House) can be helpful here.

So, pick a program and a book. Few people want to give the federal government even more money to fling around, so we need to pay attention to the sales tax deductions that itemizers can take and the one-time refund of a phone excise tax that most taxpayers should receive-if we remember to ask for it on Form 1040, line 71. But a flat tax system would be better.