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Battling the IRS? Hiring a pro may be wise


Last year, my wife and I filed our tax return electronically, using computer software, and set up a credit card payment to be made two weeks after the tax return filing deadline.

In December, I received a letter from the IRS stating that I had never filed a tax return and that my wife and I owed penalties and interest.

After many phone conversations, the IRS admitted that we had filed on time, but that it had ignored our return because the date we put to take the funds from our credit card was after the due date.

Because December was the first I had heard that there was any problem with our return, I protested vociferously. The IRS replied that I needed to send in payment and then worry about who was in the wrong.

I paid both the interest and late-filing penalty, but I am wondering what recourse I have at this point.

This may come as a nasty shock, but your income taxes are due on the due date. Sometimes you get a day or two leeway when April 15 falls on a weekend, but that's about it.

Your confusion may come from the fact that a lot of people file for extensions so they can get an extra four months or so to file their returns.The extension is only on the time to file, however. You're still supposed to estimate and pay your taxes by the due date, which this year was April 16.

It's not clear from your letter whether your credit card was actually charged. If it wasn't, that was your first clue that something was wrong. If it was, you may have a bit more ground to stand on when dealing with the IRS, at least in terms of limiting the amount of interest and penalties you owe.

Avoiding the penalty entirely is probably not an option, unless you can prove there was some reasonable cause for the late payment, says Los Angeles accountant Phil Holthouse. Simply doing something dumb doesn't quite rise to that standard.

Depending on how much money is involved, it might be worth hiring a professional tax preparer to help you sort this out. Battling the IRS can be difficult. It can pay to have a good guide.

I am planning on divorcing next year, once my youngest child turns 18. During the next 12 months, can I start protecting my finances for the future?

For example, we married very young, so all our assets were built up during the marriage. However, I am a long-time employee of my company, so my 401(k) is substantially larger than any retirement account my husband has accumulated.

Are there any Web sites or books you could recommend for this stage of the process? I have a while to research this, as my appointment with an attorney isn't for several months, in case I change my mind.

If you live in a community property state, the assets you accumulate during marriage generally belong equally to you and your husband. It doesn't matter that you contributed more to your 401(k) than he did to his - typically half of your contributions and half of the account earnings belong to him.

That doesn't mean you can't take other steps. Nolo Press has an excellent book, "Divorce & Money," by Violet Woodhouse and Victoria Collins. Lorna Wendt, who waged a rather public fight with her executive ex-husband over their divorce settlement, runs a helpful Web site at www.equalityin

It also may make sense to chat with a financial planner as well as a lawyer. You can find information about choosing a planner at

Divorce may prove to be a more expensive proposition than you thought. Only you can determine whether it's the right move, financially and emotionally.

But experts will tell you it's smart to begin addressing financial issues as soon as you realize that a split may be in your future.

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