REDMOND, Wash., March 14, 2001 — Around this time of year, Julie Treeces life is about one thing: preparing other peoples tax returns. As a certified public accountant (CPA) with 10 tax seasons under her belt, she is accustomed to people putting off their tax planning. She is also used to peoples lack of knowledge about the tax code and their fear of being audited.
“Everybody wants to fly under the IRSs radar at tax time,”
she said with a chuckle.
Theres one thing Treece wouldnt mind around this time or year: a helping hand — someone or something to ensure that her clients get the best tax return possible without incurring special attention from the Internal Revenue Service.
MSN created its MoneyCentral tax preparation Web site to provide this kind of helping hand for taxpayers. The site, located at http://moneycentral.msn.com/tax/home.asp , is like having a free 24-hour tax advisor a few mouse clicks away. The site offers articles that explain the most common tax return mistakes (bad math is No. 1), recent tax law changes and tax strategies to avoid an audit. It also features tools to help filers locate deductions they may have overlooked as well as estimate the amount they will owe or receive before filing. In addition, there are links to IRS forms and H & R Blocks online tax preparation site.
Most of the tips and advice come from Jeff Schnepper, noted tax attorney and best-selling author of
“How to Pay Zero Taxes.”
He receives as many as 100 questions a week from people via the Tax Corner message board on MoneyCentral. Around tax time, the number balloons even higher.
“I look at the tax code as a puzzle, and its my job to help members of the MoneyCentral community put that puzzle together without paying a single penny more in taxes than the law requires,”
Free Tax Tools 24 Hours a Day
Questions posted on Tax Corner run the gamut. Some are simple:
“Can I deduct rental property taxes twice?” Answer:”
“Others are more complex:”
Im a disabled veteran. I have a lot of joint and muscular pain associated with service-related injuries. I bought a Jacuzzi last year to help relieve some of the pain. My accountant said I should be able to write this off as a medical expense with a note from my doctor. My doctor was a little reluctant and said I should double-check with another accountant.
If the unit was purchased as a device to reduce your pain for a specific medical condition, and purchased upon a physician’s prescription, then it’s allowable as a medical expense. You don’t have to attach anything to your return, but hold the substantiation in case you win the audit lottery.
Almost as varied as the questions are the backgrounds of the MoneyCentral users who, along with Schnepper, offer responses. Regulars include CPAs, economics professors and even IRS agents.
“Its great to see someone from the IRS who enjoys his work so much that he wants to give free advice on his own time,”
“The tools and information people can access on the site would cost $50 to $100 an hour anywhere else — or as much as $500 an hour from a tax specialist,”
“Here its free, and it doesnt require a trip to the CPAs office. You can type a question in your pajamas before you go to bed and your answer will be waiting for you when you get up in the morning.”
Taxes and Other Financial Information At One Site
MSN created the site three years ago to provide a central clearinghouse for tax information, as well as expand the other financial information already available to MoneyCentrals 11 million readers. In addition to the tax site, MoneyCentral offers seven other specialty sites: Investor, Banking and Bills, Retirement and Wills, Insurance, Savings and Spending, Family and College, and Mortgages and Loans.
“We wanted people to have one place they could go to on the Web to get through the tax season, prepare for next year before its too late and maintain their overall finances,”
said Chris Jolley, MSN MoneyCentral lead product manager.
“There are very few Web sites that do a really good job of bringing all this together. When you are managing your money, who wants to go all over the Web to get the information and resources you need?”
MoneyCentral distinguishes itself from other online tax sites, Jolley said, by offering more sophisticated tools, such as the Tax Estimator and Deduction Finder. It also is one of the few sites with a staff of experts and a partnership with H & R Block that allows people to file online, he said. This comprehensive collection of tools, resources and tips give consumers, regardless of their tax-filing preference, more ways to prepare and manage the tax process.
Treece said she appreciates MoneyCentrals diversity of articles and common sense tips. For instance, she has seen people who dont file a return because they cant afford to pay their taxes. But a MoneyCentral reader would know better. One article explains how to set up a payment plan.
“Its no big deal,”
Treece thinks taxpayers should pay attention to other advice on MoneyCentral as well, such as how to avoid the most common mistakes people make when preparing their own returns and how to avoid extra attention from the IRS.
“Many people think filing for an extension makes you more likely to get an audit,”
Not so, according to one of Schneppers MoneyCentral articles. The IRS compares returns to those of other taxpayers in the same income bracket and geographic location, he explained. Anything out of the norm, including large charitable donations, raises a persons chance of being audited. The self-employed, doctors and waiters also receive special attention, Schnepper said.
So, is Treece worried about MoneyCentral eventually putting her out of a job? No way. Online tax sites actually make her job easier by helping her clients prepare for tax time and get up to speed on tax issues.
“When people have a good base of knowledge, it is easier to talk to them about how to complete their return,”
“When people are oblivious, it makes my job harder.”