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With tax returns due Monday, here's advice for last-minute filers

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For taxpayers who work best under the pressure of a deadline ... well, that's now.

Returns must be filed by the end of Monday. But there's always a risk when scrambling to get returns in under the wire. You might make a mistake or overlook a valuable tax break.

To avoid that, here are some tips for last-minute filers:

File for free: The Internal Revenue Service partners with tax preparation companies to provide free online filing of federal returns if your adjusted gross income is $57,000 or less. That's about 70 percent of taxpayers.

You must access the IRS' Free File through the agency's website, irs.gov.

Unclaimed refunds: Time also is running out to claim old refunds. The IRS said it is holding $917 million in unclaimed refunds from the 2009 tax year owed to 984,400 taxpayers. That includes about $22.8 million unclaimed refunds owed to 23,100 Marylanders, the agency said.

If the refund is not claimed by the April 15 deadline — three years after the original due date — the money will belong to Uncle Sam.

Refunds typically go unclaimed when people don't file a tax return because their wages are too low. Still, income taxes have been taken out of their paychecks, and that money can be refunded to them.

To claim an old refund, you must file a return. If you owe child support or money to the federal government, the refund will be used to offset that debt.

Double-check deductions: Just because you earned too much money last year to qualify for deductions doesn't mean you're not eligible now, said Barbara Weltman, author of J.K. Lasser's "1001 Deductions & Tax Breaks."

The income limits to qualify for many tax breaks were raised for inflation, and the increases may be enough that you now qualify for certain deductions and credits, she said.

For example, income limits were raised for deductible individual retirement accounts as well as the Earned Income Tax Credit for lower-income workers.

Last-minute moves to reduce taxes: You have until the end of Monday to make a contribution to IRAs for 2012. Depending on your income, you might be able to deduct some or all of your contribution to a traditional IRA. The maximum contribution is $5,000, or $6,000 if you are 50 or older.

Make sure the financial institution understands that this is your 2012 contribution, and not one for this year, said Jackie Perlman, principal tax research analyst with H&R Block Tax Institute. Otherwise, you won't qualify for the deduction on the 2012 return.

It's also not too late to make a contribution for 2012 to a health savings account if you had a qualified high-deductible health insurance policy as of Dec. 1, Weltman said.

Money in these accounts can earn interest or be invested, and withdrawals are tax-free when used to pay medical bills.

Workers often make pre-tax contributions to health savings accounts through payroll deductions at work. But if you didn't last year, you can put money in now and deduct the contribution on your return. There are no income limits, Weltman said.

For 2012, singles can contribute up to $3,100 to the health account and families can set aside up to $6,250. If you're 55 or older, you can set aside an extra $1,000.

Also, it's not too late to put money into a Coverdell Education Savings Account for 2012. It doesn't save on taxes now, but withdrawals from the investment account are tax-free if used to meet education expenses from kindergarten through college.

The maximum contribution for the year is $2,000. A full or partial contribution can be made by singles with income up to $110,000 and joint filers with income not exceeding $220,000.

Frequent filing mistakes: Math errors are among the most common mistakes. They usually can be avoided by using tax software that does the calculating for you.

But even software programs have limits if you input incorrect numbers, so double-check figures.

Other errors the IRS often sees that can delay a refund include incorrect or missing Social Security numbers, misspelled names, wrong bank account numbers and a failure to sign the return.

Tracking refunds: The IRS says that once it gets returns, taxpayers usually receive refunds in less than 21 days. You can check on your refund with the IRS' online tool called "Where's My Refund?"

Also, if you filed an amended return, you can track it with another IRS online tool called "Where's My Amended Return?" or call 866-464-2050. The IRS warns that it takes about three weeks after an amended return is filed for it to show up in the system.

Get an extension: Need more time to get your paperwork together? You can file for an extension by filling out Form 4868, which would give you until Oct. 15 to submit your return.

"The IRS automatically grants it. You don't have to have a reason," Weltman said.

Although, if you are going to owe taxes, you must estimate the liability and pay that by Monday's deadline.

The IRS also is granting late-payment penalty relief for those seeking an extension because certain tax forms were delayed this year. Congress passed a tax law in early January postponing the tax season as the IRS and tax software companies scrambled to catch up with the changes, Perlman said. Some forms weren't available until February or March.

Taxpayers still must make a good-faith estimate on what they owe and pay their taxes by April 15, Perlman said.

The late-payment penalty runs 0.5 percent a month but won't be assessed if taxpayers pay any shortfall by the October extension due date, she said.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

twitter.com/eileenambrose

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