Getting organized can end the scramble for records
Keep your eyes on your mailbox. ''Between now and the middle of February, people will receive a lot of the information they need to file their income tax, '' says Linda Doty, a tax partner with Coopers & Lybrand, the accounting firm.
Many of the records that should be gathered for 1982 income-tax filing will arrive via the postman. Others will have to be plucked from neatly organized files, pulled from an envelope stuffed with this year's receipts, or gathered from all over the house. No matter which way you round up important papers for the Internal Revenue Service, it would be a good idea to start gathering them now, accountants say.
Some of the most important ones you'll need will arrive by mail. These include a W-2 statement from your employer of wages earned and taxes withheld (although many employers hand them out at work). The mails will also bring statements for 1982 showing interest and dividends earned on bank accounts, stocks, bonds, and other investments. These figures will have to be included in your total 1982 income.
You should be receiving notice from lending institutions telling you how much interest you paid on loans last year. This might be a car loan or mortgage. The interest is tax deductible, and if you don't automatically receive the notice you should ask for it. Also in this category would be credit card statements - they would show deductible interest you might have had to catch up on drawn-out payments.
After the mails have quit hand-feeding you documents, it's time to dig back and collect receipts of the major deductibles: charitable contributions (including dues paid to organizations), property taxes, health and medical payments (including the dentist and optometrist), health insurance premiums, investment losses, and business expenses.
Collecting information about car use for business is tricky. Either you can deduct the 20 cents a mile the government allows, or you can collect actual gas, oil, and repair receipts. Either way you must keep exact records. ''A common error is to estimate your business miles,'' says Dan Cullinane, with H&R Block, the tax preparers. ''You have to keep a log of miles and enter how many miles, whom you called on, and the date. If the IRS audits you, they want to see that log.''
Other records to haul out are receipts - all receipts - because sales tax is deductible. The IRS has a table allowing a standard sales tax deduction for each income bracket, ''but usually a person's sales tax is bigger than what the government has figured for and that extra is deductible, too,'' points out Barry Salzberg, a director of personal tax services for Deloitte, Haskins & Sells, another accounting firm.
Another overlooked area is receipts for home improvements. ''Since the gain on a sale of a residence is subject to income tax, a person should keep home improvement receipts,'' says Coopers & Lybrand's Linda Doty. ''They may not get used the year the improvement is made, but they'll reduce the tax when the residence is sold.''
If you can't find an actual receipt or can't remember every deduction you've accumulated this year, go over your checkbook. For the unorganized person, ''the checkbook is the first place to start in gathering records,'' Mr. Salzberg advises. Check over your credit card statements, too.
Checks are as good as receipts ''if they are made out to a bona fide business ,'' says H&R Block's Mr. Cullinane. ''If you just make a check out to John Doe for a business expense like cleaning your home office or keeping the grounds, it won't go over at the IRS. It has to say John Doe Cleaning Service or John Doe Landscaping.''
Gathering all the necessary documents and receipts for tax preparation can turn into a mad scramble. Many taxpaying individuals are not very organized. Accountants like to tell horror stories of getting shopping bags full of receipts from last-minute taxpayers (although many accountants say that's a tall tale that comes true only once in a while).
Still, there's no denying it. Taxpaying next year will be a lot easier for the person who has even loosely organized records over the year. And ''you'll save dollars in the end, because you'll take deductions you will otherwise have forgotten about,'' says Deloitte's Mr. Salzberg.
The following are some possible filing systems suggested by tax experts:
H&R Block has one that requires a minimal amount of work. Just go to your local office, pick up one of the free 8-by-10 envelopes, and begin stuffing it whenever you get a receipt. The deductible categories are printed on the front of the envelope to help you keep track of the receipts. ''When January comes around, sit down for a few hours and sort them out. Add up the totals in each deductible category. It takes a little time, but at least your receipts are all in one place,'' Cullinane says.
If you want to take organization a step further, try the method suggested by Salzberg. Divide an accordion file folder into two overall categories: money spent and money received. Then subdivide the money spent into 10 or 12 deductible categories. Set aside one slot for miscellaneous items which you think may be deductible. Then ask a professional about those items at tax time.
Different accountants suggest variations on the last theme. One says to drop a receipt in the file folder every time you get one. Another says to collect all the receipts and drop them in once a month - maybe when you tackle the bills. And one more suggests adding a backup system to the accordion file: Simply pay by check as often as you can and remember to circle each check you think may be deductible.
After you've done your taxes, take all those receipts and put them in a file marked ''1983 taxes.'' ''You'll have everything in one place if the IRS audits you,'' Ms. Doty said. Keep the folder at least three years - the amount of time the IRS has to audit you, though it can go back further if fraud is suspected.