Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Tax Day? Is it that time already? Or, a Tax Day tale of (routine) annual horrors


by Ken


As I write, the message on my computer screen confirms that my e-fiiled federal tax return has been accepted. New York State has yet to be heard from (aka "Pending"), but I've been through this before, and I'm confident that they'll come around in time. Okay, "confident" may be an overstatement. The day I become truly confident about any aspect of income-tax filing is the day when I no longer have to worry about doing it. When that day comes, I will definitely list this on the "plus" column -- almost certainly at the top of the "plus" column. Nevertheless, I'm fairly sure that NYS will be heard from in the not-too-distant future.

And it's all happening a whole day ahead of the dreaded April 15 deadline.

I take this seriously. Because once upon a time . . . .

I can't speak for the rest of the country, but here in NYC you can take your tax returns to the main post office, on Eighth Avenue at 33rd Street, across from Madison Square Garden, right up to midnight and get your mailing envelopes stamped with the magic date -- and every year you can count on the local TV stations having a crew stationed on Eighth Avenue on Tax Night showing the last-minute filers last-minute-filing.

For more years than I care to remember, I was one of those people. Frankly, I don't care to remember any of them. It's too easy to remember the years when I lived within walking distance of a subway station from which it was a mere four stops to the very corner of Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street and I kept watch on the minutes ticking away on the clock watching for the last possible moment when I could count on getting a train that would get me there before the witching hour.


At this point, now that I no longer have any free-lance income, just straight salary, and pretty much nothing else in the way of complications, my taxes could hardly be simpler. Yes, there have been years past when I could legitimately entertain a measure of terror about whether I would have enough money to cover the eventual tab, if it eventuated that there was one. By now, however, it's hard to imagine that my payroll deductions could be that far out of whack with my tax bill. But the terrors aren't rational.

As a matter of fact, skipping for the moment over weeks and days and hours of mounting terror, I did reach a point this afternoon when the tax software (which I'd bought months ago, imagining a timelier filing process) wanted to know whether I wanted to have NYS calculate the penalty due on the amount I owed or did I want to calculate it myself? If I can attempt to re-create my thoughts of the moment, they went something like this:


A panel on the side of the window was telling me that I had a refund of $368 coming from the federal government and a refund of $0 coming from my state. I had to do some clicking around to find out what this penalty the software spoke of was coming from. When I found it, I wished I hadn't. The amount of tax I reportedly owed to the state was something like $1462. If I can attempt to re-create my thoughts of that moment, they went something like this:


(I'm not sure whether you can detect the much higher level of terror in this "huh.")

At this point I had to confront the fact that I really didn't know my way around the software, especially since I had already clicked my way through to the NYS worksheet for calculating the penalty I might owe, and so any attempt I made to get the software to just display the form led to a display of this worksheet. Eventually I must have found a way to view the return the software was cooking up, in this case a NYS IT-201. With the detecting genius of a Sherlock Holmes, I probably needed less than 15 minutes to identify a possible point of contention: the form was claiming that the amount I had paid toward my NYC indebtedness was, wait for it, zero!

Which didn't seem likely.

Now, ironically, I had to find my way back to one of the first steps I had taken on finally getting up the courage to open the tax software sometime earlier this afternoon. Oh wait, I guess I haven't mentioned that I was proceeding at this, er, exceedingly cautious, step-by-step pace (including many preliminary steps of avoidance) because I had taken the precaution of taking a PTO day today, sort of my personal Tax Day. And I had intentionally scheduled it for the 14th rather than the 15th just in case I found there was a problem (or problems) I couldn't resolve on a same-day basis. (Don't snicker. It's happened to me.)

As soon as I opened the program, I had to deal with the issue of inputting the information from my W-2, and much to my surprise, I was able to get the software to import it from my employer's website! It's true that the instructions at that point had warned me to make sure that the imported information was correct, and I had tried to, but it somehow hadn't occurred to me to skip to the very last information to see that the last information -- the local tax deducted this year -- wasn't there.

Well, okay, I supposed I could re-import the information. But first I figured I needed to get rid of this dastardly rendering of my true W-2. I wound up exiting the return-in-progress, not only not saving what it was asking me about saving but deleting the whole damned thing. Which meant I got to start over. Which I did, and tense minutes later, sure enough, my identifying information had been accepted and we were once again importing the W-2, or so it claimed. The screen warmed that this could take awhile, and I tried not to panic (it hadn't taken very long the first time).

I think I went to the kitchen in an effort to give these systems some time to communicate without me watching over them. It's possible that I put some coffee on. Eventually, though, I had to come back and see what was happening, and apparently it was nothing. We were still importing. From here the thing gets a little blurry, but the program crashed. And when I restarted it, and once again started the return from scratch (when I tried to open the existing file, it turned out there was nothing in it, which I realized made sense since I had deleted it my own self), and when we got up to the W-2 importing stage, and I had once again entered all the identifying info, it crashed again! And maybe once again after that.

Now I was reentering the return-creating process with the knowledge that the software could crash anytime it felt like it. Great! A little paranoid now, I decided to pursue the option I thought I had noticed to input the W-2 contents myself, which I figured I could do, however tedious the process might be, since I actually did have the hard copy of my W-2 in front of me. Well, it had been in front of me. Now it was -- well, who knew where, exactly? There were still mounds of papers strewn about from my earlier efforts at figuring out whether I had enough medical expenses to qualify for some medical deducting. I had concluded that I didn't, but the papers I'd consulted (and in turn generated) were still strewn about.

Eventually the W-2 resurfaced, and I began entering the information while keeping one eye on the lookout for another software implosion. But no, the machine seemed to be amply entertained by my efforts to input all that stuff. One interesting development developed: When it came to the end of the form (finally!), the screen displayed what I finally figured out was a warning that actually affected me: It informed me that the line on which my "local" tax paid was reported, it had to be identified as "NYC," regardless of how it was identified on the printed W-2. And the way it was identified on the printed W-2, which was presumably the way it had been imported when I was originally able to import the original W-2, was "NYC RES."

Luckily -- I guess I have to chalk it up as lucky -- the warning specified "NYC RES" as one version that was no good. No, it had to be "NYC," nothing more. It probably took me less than five minutes to figure out how to change that -- time that also enabled me to reflect that probably the local-tax info had been imported on that original effort; the information simply hadn't been imported, I now figured, because of the offending "NYC RES" label.

To my now-considerable relief, the process proceeded in more or less orderly fashion from there, and this time as we approached the home stretch of the NYS return, instead of the $1460-odd figure that I was supposed to owe, I was now in a position to claim a refund of . . . $2! And suddenly a seemingly insignificant number that had given me a chuckle earlier took on a new character. The tax software, God bless it, had discovered that, in consequence of the $15,540 worth of rent I had paid as a 12-month resident of NYC, I was entitled to a "NYC enhanced real property tax credit" of . . . $14! Yes, as a result of writing those rent checks every month, I was now getting back a dollar and change (a very small amount of change) for each and every one of those checks!

It had seemed funny at the time, especially given the "Congratulations!" with which the software announced the happy result of all those pages of questions it had prompted me to answer leading up to the happy result. Well, $14 is $14, and I wasn't going to sneer. Now, however, it occurred to me that that $14 was the difference between me getting $2 back and me owing NYS $12. Which may not sound like such a big deal, except that if I'd owed the $12, I would have had to go through the additional nightmare of executing an online payment.

Instead, I wound up having to reenter all my bank information, already entered for the federal refund, for the NYS refund. (Well, $2 is $2.) And then there were a whole bunch of "final" steps I don't remember very well before it came time for the truly final click that constituted filing the return.

And then it was all over.

Except, of course, for seeing the "Last Known Status" for my Federal Return and my New York Return switch from "Pending" to "Accepted." I returned to Life as We Know It, and probably a couple of hours later figured out how to get the software to check the status.

Okay, now I see that there's a button on the bottom of the screen labeled "Check Status." Maybe it was, I don't know, hiding earlier. I just clicked it again, though, and it still shows the Federal Return as "Accepted" and the New York Return as "Pending." Well, the ball is in Albany's court now. I'm done. I think.

I'm free. For tax year 2014 anyways. I've already started experiencing flashes of anxiety about tax year 2015. Hey, it's not as if 2015 is some mysterious future unknown quantity.

I realize I'm just babbling, and you either did your taxes months ago or have tax stuff of your own on your mind. But if you thought you were going to get something more coherent tonight, you were mistaken.


Breaking news: "Great news -- New York has accepted your return!"

The majestic steps of McKim, Mead and White's James A. Farley Post Office on Eighth Avenue between 31st and 33rd Streets -- you can tell it's not Tax Night because (a) it's not night, and (b) there's no throng of late tax filers and the inevitable local camera crews covering the throng of late tax filers. Of course in the era of electronic filing, it may be that the throng is no longer so throngy.



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