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Why pay a “surtax” in the form of stress, dread, misery, and
grumpiness over the course of the next four months? The sooner you file
income tax returns for 1998, the sooner you can quit worrying about
filing, not to mention scoop up any refund you may have coming to you
(there’s no sense leaving it interest-free in the hands of the IRS when
you could be investing it yourself). And, in this as in almost
everything else in life, there are lots of ways the Web can lighten your
labor.

First off, I want to recommend the online income tax preparation site
SecureTax, which I used to file my own
taxes last year. Its security is excellent (if you’re uncomfortable with
the idea nonetheless, be aware that you can also download free blank tax
forms from SecureTax as well as directly from the
IRS
). Better
yet, it’s easy to use, and I say that as a severely tax-form-challenged
person. It’ll walk you through the entire filing process, determining
what forms you need to fill out based on the information you provide and
providing a step-by-step checklist. You can log off at any time, then
log back on later and resume where you left off; your work won’t be
lost. Also, SecureTax makes electronic filing a cinch (and sends you
convenient paper copies of everything in the mail); I had my refund
direct-deposited into my bank account within a week after I hit “send.”
I’m considering hiring human help this year, more because things have
gotten a bit more complicated and I want my hand held than because I
have any doubt that SecureTax would get me through all right; judging by
their excellent customer service (both phone and email) last year, I
might decide to rely on them even for the hand-holding part.
Miscellaneous site goodies include daily tax tips, the “AnyTime tax
return organizer,” a 2-Minute Refund Estimator, and, in high season, a
weekly chance to win $1040 in cash.

If you’d rather not actually work online, you may prefer tax software
you can download and run on your own computer, offline. The TaxACT
’98 Preview Edition
is free and includes
more than 80 forms, schedules, and worksheets, plus an interview that
takes you through completing your return step by step. As you move
through the interview, the software continually recomputes your tax
liability and displays it on the menu bar. A final review tells you what
documentation you need and summarizes your numbers in one location –
which is to say filing is still not as convenient as with SecureTax, but
the improvement in privacy may be worth it to you. There is a Deluxe
version of the program with additional documentation, more life events,
and greater tech support for $9.95; state tax modules are $12.95. For
Windows 95, 98, or NT.

Many Web sites offer substantive tax advice. One good choice is
Lycos’ SmartMoney.com Tax Guide
, “a plain English primer
on the many confusing parts of the tax code that are actually relevant
to you.” Oriented toward those with grown-up finances, it’s got a
prominently featured capital gains section as well as lots of discussion
of things like taxes on stock options, the nanny tax, vacation homes,
retirement, and estate planning. There’s useful help here fore the rest
of us, too, though: tax tips for the self-employed, sections on the home
office and on writing off moving expenses, an explanation of the
marriage penalty, and plenty of how-to-save-for-college information
including coverage of the “kiddie tax” (should you set up that college
account in your child’s name or not?) Try also: the plain,
well-organized Fairmark Press Tax Guide for
Investors
and the
higgledy-piggledy CBS MarketWatch Tax Guide.

The Tax Prophet (tax attorney and
San Francisco Examiner columnist Robert L. Sommers) offers basic,
intermediate, and advanced articles on tax issues, covering the latest
tax planning techniques and potential traps as well as the application
of rules pertaining to income, gift, and estate tax, independent
contractors vs. employees, wills and trusts, foreign taxpayers, IRAs,
and real estate. Noteworthy is Sommers’ expertise on abusive trusts and
Internet trust scams; there are also plenty of links to related tax
sites and to speeches, newsletters, and newspaper columns by Sommers
himself, including a good many useful-looking FAQs (archived Q&As from
column readers). The Prophet gets an A for content, but his front page
could be organized more clearly for new readers; I suggest you click on
“What’s New” and proceed from there.

When in doubt, try Tax Resources,
an extensive directory of taxation resources containing a smorgasbord of
professional and personal finance taxation articles, legal resources,
tax preparation software, currency resources, social security, health
care, foreign taxation, tax policy, tax education, and tax discussion
groups. Whatever it is you’re looking for, you’ve a good chance of
finding it here.

Feeling belligerent about the entire thing? A visit to Americans
for Tax Reform
may suit your mood. ATR opposes
all tax increases as a matter of principle, believing in a system in
which taxes are “simpler, fairer, flatter, more visible, and lower than
they are today.” You may be familiar with ATR through their sponsorship
of the calculation of Cost of
Government Day — the date of the calendar year, counting from January
1, on which the average American has earned enough in cumulative gross
income to pay for his or her share of government spending (total
federal, state, and local) plus the cost of regulations. For 1998, that
was June 25 (sigh). I suppose it’s too late to make useful mention of
the fact that contributions to ATR are tax- deductible, but it’s still
an appealing point. The ATR site gets mighty crowded between now and
mid-April, so use patience.

A notch or two down on the respectability level, you can get some
juicy, occasionally subversive scuttlebutt on the tax laws at
TaxGate, which offers analysis, news,
links to law libraries and law archives, and descriptions of various
loopholes you may be able to take advantage of. Briefly, TaxGate
maintains that the tax laws as written differ substantially (and in
taxpayers’ favor) from the tax laws as interpreted and enforced. It
encourages its readers to personalize and send pre-written letters on
the subject to their elected representatives. Not as lunatic as many
“patriotic” anti-tax sites (in fact, it maintains a
list of such sites to avoid,
complete with anecdotes describing the sorry fates of their dupes and,
occasionally, rebuttals from the sites in question), it shouldn’t get
you into too-hot water.

All that self-assessment can leave one a bit demographically paranoid
(perhaps the tactful word would be “curious”). Just how do you measure
up against the guy next door, anyway? The Dismal Scientist Economic
Profiles
will gratify the desires of your
inquiring mind. Enter your ZIP code and find out your neighborhood’s
average income, its renters-to-owners ratio, the price of its real
estate. When you’re through appeasing your prurient snoop instincts,
browse the Dismal Scientist’s other offerings, which include several
economic calculators — notably a CPI
calculator
going back as
far as 1913 (as well as a
categorical version
that calculates the changes in costs of specifics like food or housing)
and a stock-market
calculator
that estimates the
fair value of the S&P 500 based on the expectations you enter for
corporate earnings and interest rates. Peruse regional and industry
data, analysis of contemporary issues by leading authorities, and a
complex and fascinating
forecasts section.
The site’s economic
is always
there to bail you out if the going gets rough.

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