With the April 15 tax-filing deadline coming up, it may be hard to imagine that a book on taxes could be amusing. But that's the case with Mary L. Sprouse's How to Survive a Tax Audit (New York: Doubleday & Co. $11.95).
This 272-page hardcover by a former Internal Revenue Service audit manager is so full of colorful anecdotes to illustrate points, and so clearly and brightly written, that much of it is fun to read as well as informative.
That cannot be said for the seven other tax books reviewed here. They may be useful and jammed with tax information, but reading them will not likely prompt any chuckles -- except maybe if you find a new tax loophole that is going to enlarge your refund enough to send your child through college.
Sprouse accomplishes something else rather astounding: The reader not only learns a great deal about the IRS and its auditing procedures, but he may also develop a certain sympathy for the tax auditor's problems and attitudes. As she writes: "If you enjoy a good insult, towering rages, hysterical weeping, or mail that ticks, have I got a job for you! Being an Internal Revenue Service auditor can be like riding an emotional roller coaster."
Some 2 million US taxpayers are audited each year. Without being sensational or scary, Sprouse offers good advice on how to handle such an event as cheaply as possible. She also has some suggestions on how to reduce the chances of being audited, though the systematic yet random nature of the selection process means the risk is always there. She further cautions taxpayers on the importance of good records and of careful selection of tax preparers. For instance, she warns against the preparer who guarantees you a refund or sets his fee as a percentage of the refund, or who charges by the page.
In any case, the reader of this book will most likely obtain useful knowledge about the nation's tax collection system.
Perhaps because inflation has been swelling the federal tax burden, the number of workbooks to help you prepare your income tax has lengthened.
One first-rate new one is Sylvia Porter's 1981 Tax Book, by Sylvia Porter (New York: Avon Books. $3.95 in paperback), the well- known newspaper personal-finance columnist and book author. The writing is clear, the type is large, and the text guides readers line by line through Form 1040. The author uses the question-and- answer technique to provide much of the book's information. Important tax tips are boxed typographically for easy notice. The book includes blank 1980 tax forms. For taxpayers with relatively common deductions or other tax questions, this book should be adequate.
For taxpayers with more complex tax problems and more patience, J. K. Lasser's Your Income Tax (New York: Simon & Schuster. $4.95 in paperback) may be more suitable. Billed as "the original, most widely used tax guide in America," it must also be the most comprehensive of this type of workbook, with some 328 pages of small type. For instance, it includes chapters for aliens, citizens working abroad, and veterans and members of the armed forces; another chapter on gift and estate planning, as well as the normal information for more garden-variety taxpayers. The tax-form novice may have some trouble with the tax terminology and language. Because of its early publication date, it does not contain 1980 tax forms. But it includes a post card for sending away for a free supplement with filled-in 1980 forms.
The Research Institute of America Inc.'s 1981 Federal Income Tax Guide (New York: Ace Books. $3.95 in paperback) is also somewhat scholarly in character and offers considerable tax details. It is printed in small type, follows the line-by-line format through filled- in 1980 forms, and includes sections on such topics as tax strategies for the investor, maximum tax breaks for car expenses, making the most of charitable contributions, and how to handle an IRS audit.
The 1981 H & R Block Income Tax Workbook (New York: Macmillan. $4.95 in paperback) is well-organized, printed in large type, and includes filled-in 1980 tax forms. There is also a file folder for receipts and records. But the language is sometimes like that of a tax lawyer. For instance, one sentence reads: "If you acquire property other than by purchase, the basis of the property is generally other than cost."m
Pay Less Tax Legally, by Barry R. Steiner (New York: Signet. $3.95 in paperback) is the shortest of these workbooks, at 162 pages, and, with large type, may be the least comprehensive. Many pages use a two-column format, with the tax law on the left and tax tips on the right. The book uses filled-in 1979 forms "for purposes of illustration."
Two other tax books list possible savings. Take It Off, by Robert S. Holzman , PhD (New York: Lippincott & Crowell. $5.95 in paperback), is billed as including "1,695 Tax Deductions Most People Overlook." These are listed, sometimes arbitrarily, alphabetically. Thus the reader could face a considerable job plowing through the list to find an overlooked tax break. Of course, in some cases the time could be well spent.
Everybody's Guide to Tax Shelters: How to Avoid Taxes Like a Millionaire, by Stuart A. Ober (New York: Wyden/Harper & Row. $12.95 in hardcover) does include some tax ideas for the those with lower or middle-level incomes, but many of its suggestions are directed at upper-income taxpayers. For instance, it includes tax sheltering with collectibles, real estate, oil and gas, equipment leasing, timber, and so on. And it offers some warning on tax shelters.
One final point about these tax books: Their cost is tax deductible.