We've celebrated the arrival of spring, we've turned our clocks ahead to signal the start of daylight-saving time and our lawns (crab grass and all) are turning green again. It can mean only one thing - the deadline's almost here for filing your income tax return for 2000.
Is there a number that Americans dread hearing more than 1040? Even those who are getting a tax refund are a bit apprehensive; did I or my tax preparer make a mistake? Will I be audited by the Internal Revenue Service, which we really don't believe has become a kinder, gentler IRS?
Some people like to file in late January or February, especially those getting refunds. But for many Americans, the April 15 deadline (April 16 this year because the 15th is a Sunday), is soon enough. Look for long lines at the post office in the next week as taxpayers scurry to file the returns they've put off like college term papers.
So, if you're among the procrastinators, you might want to consider avoiding crowds and filing online. There are a number of Web sites where you can prepare your own return or enlist a reputable tax-preparation service to do it for you. A sampling of sites revealed that they are all relatively easy to use; most take users through the process step-by-step and issue "error" messages when something is filled out incorrectly or omitted.
There are help lines for those who want to be comforted by a human voice, lists of frequently asked questions, tax tips and links to other sites.
However, those who want to file their tax return online must have the utmost confidence in the security of these sites. All are going to require giving the same detailed personal information that you would give your tax preparer. You will sign in and create a password and a "hint" or prompt to help you remember it. And on all sites reviewed, you can return and add information, or complete the forms over several visits.
Here are four sites you might want to check out: Securetax.com
Uses Quicken TurboTax for the Web. Has two forms - a 1040EZ ($9.95) for married couples earning less than $63,000 and single folks earning less than $57,500, and the 1040 ($19.95). Users can borrow against their refund and get the cash advance in two or three days. www.filesafe.net
Features a Quick Tax estimator that gives you a rough idea of what you're in for based on your gross income and withholding. But you must sign in first. Charges $14.95 for electronic filing. e1040.com
Has a Quickie Tax Calculator that gives users the down-and-dirty numbers without requiring them to enter all the personal information. Neat features include an IRS Risk Calculator, which lets you know the odds of being audited, based on your income bracket; and a breakdown of tax brackets that tells you at a glance whether you have had enough withheld. Costs $14.95 for electronic filing; $39.95 if you use the help line. refdesk.com
The most comprehensive site reviewed. Features links to the IRS home page and dozens of tax-preparation sites. One of the best links uses H&R; Block to prepare tax return online. Costs $19.95 if you do it yourself, $99.95 if you enter all the required information online and let H&R; Block reps do the rest.