- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

The Internal Revenue Service expects 21.8 million Americans to huddle with their 2001 taxes this weekend and a record 8.2 million people to get an automatic extension.
Accounting firms across the region yesterday braced for the last-minute rush.
The H&R; Block office on Connecticut Ave. near the National Zoo was packed yesterday. The office had to extend its normal hours to 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. over the weekend.
"My advice for consumers is to try to get in much earlier in the next coming seasons because [last- minute filing] is always a problem," said Bob Taylor, an accountant. "We procrastinate as American citizens because we know we've got time to do things. But it's difficult in the last minute."
Mr. Taylor recommended that taxpayers visit an accountant early in the year, when they have part of the required documents. This way most of the paperwork can be started. Then filing taxes is just a matter of delivering the rest of the documentation to the accountant when it comes in.
"This way they come in and it only takes a few minutes to get it done," Mr. Taylor said.
Up the street from HR Block, at the Tax Center, accountants are just as busy. This firm has had to extend hours as well. Typically open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, this week the office has remained open past 10 p.m.
"We are still booking appointments, but at this point most of them are just walk-ins and we're just trying to work everybody in," said John Holt, owner of the Tax Center.
Mr. Holt's last-minute advice was for Americans who know they owe money to rush in and file.
"Technically, everyone is supposed to file by April 15, but the only ones who are penalized are the ones who still owe money," Mr. Holt said.
Not filing on time carries a 5 percent monthly penalty for any balance due plus interest.
"When you're expecting a refund and end up owing taxes, it's like waking up Christmas morning and having to pay Santa Claus," said Steve Rhode of Myvesta.com, a credit counseling service. "You can't hide for long" when Uncle Scrooge can seize assets and garnish pay atop penalties and interest.
Many tax specialists suggest asking for an extension if you're running late on filing your taxes.
If you are owed a refund but don't file a return, the IRS enforces a three-year wait from the day the tax return was due to claim the money. The clock runs out on $2.3 billion in unclaimed 1998 refunds this April 15, after which the IRS keeps the money.
Last year's tax rebate has caused some commotion this tax season. A line in the 2001 tax form, the Rate Reduction Credit for taxpayers who didn't get a rebate check last fall, has caused millions of mistakes already, according to the IRS.
"The major issue we've seen is people being unsure about how the rebate affected their taxes it's the first question I get," Mr. Holt said.
Other big issue this year concerned online and electronic filing.
Electronic filing seems to have caught on mainly because of how quick it is, Mr. Holt said. Consumers due for the average $1,954 refund this year could receive it within two weeks if they file electronically.
This trend has more Americans ahead of the tax game this season, said Timothy Rupert, associate professor of accounting and tax concentration at Northeastern University in Boston.
New consumers are embracing electronic filing because of its efficiency, and old consumers are filing early, because many electronic filing services increase their fees for filing in April, he said.
As of yesterday, 4 percent more taxpayers had filed compared with this time last year. Nationwide 132 million Americans are expected to file, up from 127 million last year, said Sam Serio, the D.C. region spokesman for the IRS.
"The difference this year is that you can file electronically or you can file online from your home computer at 3 in the morning," he said. "You don't have to wait until the next day or take a day off to go to the tax preparer anymore."
Some 39 percent more people had filed online by yesterday compared with last year, Mr. Serio said.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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