Tax books: bigger is seldom better

This is the year when authors of tax books think bigger is better. Several hard covers have been added to the usual set of paperbacks. And along with their larger sizes come higher prices - from $12.95 to $17.95 for the books reviewed here. Yet most people will find that a simpler book, such as the reliable $5.95 H & R Block paperback (reviewed below), should do the trick.

Even though Congress, at the urging of President Reagan, passed huge tax cuts in 1981, the government will pay through deductions for tax manuals for millions of taxpayers to learn how to take advantage of available loopholes. Moreover, the revenue-raising Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 made several changes to which taxpayers will want to be alert, some effective only this year.

There are two kinds of tax books: ''tax manuals'' are aimed at helping people fill out the 1982 forms with the least effort and the smallest possible total. ''Tax planning'' books are intended to help readers plan future investments with as little tax bite as possible.

Two of the new high-priced planning books may be worth the investment for readers with high incomes. The most expensive book of this type is Prosper Through Tax Planning (New York: Coward-McCann, 336 pp., $17.95), by Robert Buechner, who maintains that the Economic Tax Act of 1981 ''offers an unprecedented opportunity to build and conserve wealth.'' He continues: ''It was founded on the premise that massive tax cuts coupled with tax incentives for saving and investing would stimulate vigorous economic growth, resulting in greater productivity and less inflation.''

Well, the growth so far is not vigorous. But inflation is way down, and productivity has improved. Mr. Buechner offers perhaps the most detailed review of current tax breaks, including the Clifford Trust and noninterest demand loans , which help parents save for their children's college bills; gifts to children and charities; individual retirement accounts, Keoghs, and annuities; life insurance; tax shelters; the tax consequences of divorce; ways to reduce estate taxes and avoid probate. A second section looks at business tax planning. And there are appendixes with samples of such tax niceties as a short-term irrevocable trust agreement or a profit- sharing plan.

The book is detailed, printed in relatively small type, and not very lively. But the extra few dollars may well be a bargain for anyone genuinely interested in the fancier tax-saving devices.

Robert Garber's The Only Tax Book You'll Ever Need (New York: Harmony Books, 305 pp., $14.95) is a tax manual in hard-cover guise. It includes a tax-rate schedule, IRS forms, lists of federal tax publications and of tax havens, and an organizer for personal records. Its early chapters run through the usual subjects - income, deductions, computations, and credits - with an occasional touch of humor. (One item for trivia collectors: the longest single sentence in the tax code, found in an important subsection dealing with so-called ''collapsible corporations,'' is over 450 words in length.)

Later chapters go into the tax advantages of partnerships, corporations, tax shelters, and retirement plans. This book is less detailed than Buechner's. And one piece of advice is outdated: Since publication, the Internal Revenue Service has decided it will still answer tax questions over the phone. The book does give some useful advice on how to choose advisers for tax planning - and you may need them, despite the hint of omniscience in the title.

How To Save 50% or More on Your Income Tax - Legally (New York: Macmillan, 322 pp., $14.95), by B. Ray Anderson, plugs a newsletter and the tax planning services of the author's firm, a fairly common practice nowadays. This book is the easiest of the new hard covers to read. But it is not so comprehensive in reviewing tax shelters. Mr. Anderson's strongest points are his suggestions that , where possible, wage earners should shift income to lower-bracket taxpayers (usually children) and use corporations, partnerships, and trusts to lower tax burdens. He has useful discussions of ''Subchapter S'' corporations, which channel their income directly to their stockholders, and of college-financing techniques, such as loans to your children. But probably most of these devices are useful only in households with income of at least $40,000.

One interesting point in the preface: 62.3 percent of all individual income tax revenues are extracted today from only 38.4 percent of America's taxpayers, those reporting income between $14,000 and $49,999.

The title of Mark Skousen's book, Tax Free: The Only Book That Shows You Over 200 Legal Ways to be Exempt from Federal, State and Social Security Taxes (New York: Simon & Schuster. 192 pp. $12.95), is somewhat misleading. Skousen writes basically (like most other authors) about reducing taxes, not eliminating them. Of course, one way to eliminate taxes is to get your income solely from tax-free municipal bonds, and Mr. Skousen offers a useful discussion of these. But few of us can afford to live off bond interest alone. Skousen also looks at tax-free fringe benefits such as low-cost employee cafeterias, employer-paid educational expenses, pension and profit-sharing plans, day care, life insurance, and more.

For Americans living abroad the book has a number of money-saving suggestions. One fascinating chapter examines the pros and cons of tax havens like Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Cayman Islands. Skousen warns readers to ''tread carefully.''

Of this year's tax manuals, the one I recommend for most people is the 1983 H & R Block Income Tax Workbook (New York: Macmillan, 288 pp., $5.95). It covers the common items of concern to most taxpayers. It has a good glossary. It is clear, well-organized, with readable type. It contains tax forms in the back, plus an envelope for storing personal documents. It goes through form 1040 line by line, as well as the simpler 1040A and brand new 1040EZ. It takes into account the latest tax breaks.

For those with more complicated tax problems J.K. Lasser's Your Income Tax (New York: Simon & Schuster. 327 pp. $5.95), edited by Bernard Greisman, is the most useful. In small type, it covers the ground from from filing your return, through income deductions, tax rates, and credits, to filing a refund claim. It has tax tables, checklists ''to reduce your tax,'' and a section on estate tax planning. It is solid, but perhaps tough for the tax novice to digest.

Barry R. Steiner's Pay Less Tax Legally (New York: New American Library. 184 pp. $4.95) employs a split-page format, with the tax law on one side and techniques for paying lower taxes on the other. It does not provide blank tax forms, though it does include some filled-out forms as examples.

Steiner has collaborated with David W. Kennedy, to produce Perfectly Legal: 300 Foolproof Methods for Paying Less Taxes (New York: John Wiley & Sons. 230 pp. $7.95). There is so much white space in this book, it could have been printed at half its size, yet the type is relatively small. It does contain blank tax forms, and a 58-page appendix reprinting the ''Audit Technique Handbook for Internal Revenue Agents - Selected Pages,'' which I suspect is meant to give clues about how to avoid - or survive - an audit.

A small pocket book, How To Get Free Tax Help (New York: Bantam Books, 205 pp., $2.95), by Matthew Lesko, is a surprise. It maintains you don't need to buy any tax manual or pay anyone to prepare your taxes. You just need to utilize the various free IRS services - neighborhood tax counseling, tax assistance for the elderly, free legal service for your audit, and so on. The book lists dozens of free specialized tax publications from the IRS. It also gives IRS telephone numbers and addresses. What is surprising is the amount of free help available to taxpayers who are willing to put forth a little effort. Whether the free help is worth the price is another matter.

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