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For some tax filers, streamlined system another reason to wait

Mon., April 13, 2009, midnight

Don Hearn is waiting until the last minute. As he usually does. “Even when I’m getting a refund,” he says. “I don’t care. I file late.”

The last minute has arrived, with income tax returns due Wednesday. Hearn is among about a quarter of all taxpayers in filing during the final week, the IRS estimates. Accountants are busy, taxpayers are hunched over home computers, free tax-prep clinics are winding down, and the post office is braced for a busy day – though nothing like the midnight scenes of recent years, before online filing cut into the need for late-night hours for snail mail.

In fact, the last minute just ain’t what it used to be. This year, there’ll be a single mailbox in Spokane with a midnight pickup: at 2928 S. Spotted Road. It’s so much easier to do taxes these days and the refunds show up so much more quickly that January and February have become busier than the middle of April, tax preparers say.

For most of those early filers, April 15 is just another day sometime after the refund check has been banked or spent.

“I’m usually pretty early,” said Dylan Medina, a 26-year-old student at Eastern Washington University. “I like having my refund back as soon as possible.”

Deborah Simon, a 43-year-old mom with two kids at home, had her taxes finished and her refund back weeks ago. The $4,600 was a big help for Simon, who’s studying to be a medical assistant at Spokane Community College.

“I paid bills,” she said. “I also shared a little with my family, and got some things for school.”

Over the past several years, the number of people filing taxes online has surged, and the IRS expects about two-thirds of this year’s 140 million returns to be done online. A big growth area has been people preparing their taxes at home using IRS E-File, software packages or other options. The IRS says the number of people filing their own taxes online is up 30 percent this year, while filing with professional help is relatively static.

Tax preparation companies have tried to offset this by offering new services. At H&R Block, refunds can be put directly onto cash cards, and a new service called Second Look lets taxpayers have their returns doubled-checked for errors – something a lot of taxpayers worry about.

“I’ve done 20 (Second Looks), and every one of them had errors,” said Betty Baker, a tax professional with the company in Spokane. “More than not, I’d say 90 percent, have a greater refund than if we hadn’t helped them.”

Tom Uryga, a retired financial planner from Spokane, said he’s been checking the electronic filing programs for accuracy in the last several years, and he’s found them to be reliable – and sometimes more up-to-date on the tax laws than even he is, with his years of experience. The programs prompt users with questions that can help them avoid overlooking a deduction.

“They were accurate, and a bit ahead of me, sometimes,” Uryga said.

Uryga said that the speed of electronic refunds and direct deposits may prompt some filers to do their taxes earlier than in years past.

“Generally, if you have money coming back, you’re filing sooner,” he said. “And if you have to pay, you’re going to file later.”

Bob Glatzer, a retired owner of an ad agency and co-host of “Movies 101” on KPBX radio, had to pay a little this year, but he still filed early. He and his wife aren’t drawn by the allure of the do-it-yourself tax system – they’ve long used an accountant.

“We’re not good at running through the maze,” he said.

Hearn, the habitual late filer, said late last week that he’d finished his “rough draft” and would finalize his return using Turbo Tax.

The 48-year-old father of two was going to school to earn a master’s degree in secondary education, but had to stop to work and earn more money this year, he said. He and his wife juggle their jobs so one can always stay home with the kids.

It hasn’t been a particularly easy year, but he said the recession hasn’t had a pronounced effect on his family. They’ve got their day-to-day expenses covered, and the $1,000 or so refund he expects is going into an emergency fund.

He’s got a long history of deadline filing; when he lived in Colorado, he and his brother used to rush the family’s tax return to the mail distribution plant right before it closed, April 15 after April 15.

“It was an annual thing,” he said. “We’d be out there at 11:45.”

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