My Dependent, the Bird, And Other Tales Of a Taxing Nature

William Grant thought he had heard it all.

Three years ago, however, the South Boston accountant was going over tax forms at the home of a long-time client when he noticed something unusual.

"The woman had claimed someone named Anthony as a dependent," he recalls. "I said, 'Who's Anthony?' She pointed to her birdcage - 'That's Anthony. He's my tax shelter.'"

Mr. Grant smiled tolerantly - and promptly crossed out the deduction.

As of midnight tonight, the tax season will come to a screeching halt. Roughly 117 million Americans will file tax returns. Many file early in anticipation of a refund - some 10 million will get an average of $1,252.

But countless others will take advantage of the largess of post offices that stay open till midnight for that all-important date mark. Almost a third of taxpayers wait until the last week. Millions more seek extensions - maybe they just can't find their W-2s or they're still trying to understand the "easy" tax software they got for Christmas.

For the technologically competent, filing by computer is an increasingly popular option. Others call in their information over the phone. Yet despite all the new gadgetry and software, many Americans prefer to do taxes the old-fashioned way: They hire an accountant.

An accountant helped Anna Gallardo fill out her tax forms, and she will greet this April 15 as just another Monday. "I usually get a refund but I didn't get one this year," she says in a moment between customers at a Boston card shop.

Some taxpayers manage to get their tax advice for free. "My dad prepared my taxes," says Kate Gruszka of Boston, adding that her refund is on the way. As for pressure, she confides brightly, "I don't really notice it, because I'm a student and I don't pay much in taxes. But my father is stressed."

The ups and downs of the tax season have become predictable to Ralph Rizzo, an accountant in East Boston. "We're busy at the beginning, from the last week of January to the last week of February, because people want their refunds," says the owner of E-Z Tax Company. "Then there's a two- to three-week lull, and then it picks up again through April 15."

The heavy workload of recent years has accountant Grant pining for the simpler flat tax. "Even if it hit the accountants, I'm willing to get hit. What's good for the country is good for the people." Besides, he says wistfully, "I'd like to really do some accounting rather than filling out all these forms."

Meanwhile, at the Internal Revenue Service, work is just beginning. Each of the agency's 20 hotlines gets 7,500 calls a day in the final weeks. Some are "refunders," some are "bal-dues," or those who have a balance due. All speak in urgent, but (mostly) polite tones.

Those who ask the IRS for tax advice may get a quick primer - surprisingly enough - on better money management.

"Many people see their refund as a Christmas fund. They can't get at it," says Helen Herzer, an unflappable IRS spokeswoman in Boston. "But if you had that money to invest yourself, you would get a better rate of return on your investment, pay your tax on the income, and still come out ahead.

"If people have managed their money smartly," Ms. Herzer continues patiently, "they are waiting until the last minute to pay."

But some folks may wait a bit too long.

A man came to Boston tax attorney Michael Knight with a special problem: He hadn't paid his taxes since 1970. Why? Well, the customer said he had been on his way to his tax lawyer's office in 1970 and stopped at a restaurant for a bite. When he came out, his briefcase with all his tax documents had been stolen from his car.

"Okay," Mr. Knight said, "that's 1970. Why didn't you pay from '71 through '94?"

"Well," the man replied, "every time I see tax documents, it reminds me of the trauma of having my tax forms stolen."

What finally got him to pay taxes? IRS auditors told him to file on time this year - or go to jail.

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