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Tax Preparation: Save Time, Get Your Refund Faster

Use these tips, tricks and tools to help speed the job

Last updated: February 2016

No magic needed
Anyone can employ these tactics.

Tax preparation. Ugh. If only you could wave a wand and complete your return instantly. Or better yet, just skip all that and go straight for the refund. 

Alas, those options aren't available quite yet. But the tips, tricks and tools below can help you smooth the process of preparing and filing your annual tax return, so you get your refund lickety-split.

Focus first on income

If you can’t give all your documents to  your tax preparer at once, concentrate on providing your income statements—Forms W-2, 1099, and 1098. In tax preparation, they are the basis of the return.

If you can’t find a paper statement from an employer or investment company, check the entity’s website. Be aware that your state may now publish Form 1099-G, the state tax refund statement, online only; that’s the case with Connecticut, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. To access that form through your state’s tax authority, go to this directory.

Sort and file

Don’t depend on your tax preparer to open paper statements and organize documents. It can add hundreds of dollars to hourly tax preparation bills.  

In addition to keeping paper copies, consider storing your tax documents on a Web-based storage server, or “cloud.” H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, and TaxAct sponsor similar free services for clients and nonclients. The companies say they use bank-level security encryption.

H&R Block, TaxAct and TurboTax customers can photograph and upload their W-2s from their Android and iOS smart phones to a company server via free mobile apps. The apps will automatically populate your tax form. The three companies offer varying versions of this service. TurboTax, for example also offers its TurboTax Mobile App; supported devices include Android 4.1 and up, iOS8 or later on iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. H&R Block's Mobile App requires Android 4.0.3 and up, or iOS 8.0 or later. It's compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. The TaxAct Express app addresses a number of tax forms and situations. It requires iOS 6.0 and up; it's compatible with the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, as well as with Android 4.3 and greater.

See our Income Tax Guide for more advice and tips on preparing, filing and saving on your income tax return.

Save work when itemizing

Unless you had a very large unreimbursed medical bill or very expensive long-term-care insurance premiums, don’t bother toting up medical expenses. Your expenses aren’t deductible until they exceed 10 percent of your adjusted gross income. (An exception, for people aged 65 and older, allows for deductions that exceed 7.5 percent; it's applicable through 2016.)

It's also generally not worth it to figure miscellaneous deductions, including tax preparation fees; dues to professional societies; job-search costs in your current profession; business travel; and work supplies. Only the amount that exceeds 2 percent of your AGI is tax-deductible. Check IRS Publication 529, "Miscellaneous Deductions" [PDF].

Consider other deductions

Keep in mind that life changes—yours and those of your family—often yield generous deductions. For example, if you now cover more than half of your mother’s living expenses, you can name her as a dependent even if she doesn’t live with you. Each dependent reduces your taxable income by $4,000 for 2015. Inform your preparer of such changes.  

Finally, e-file your tax return early to help prevent fraud or theft of your tax refund. But filing early only works if  you have all your W-2s, 1099s, and other forms. Otherwise, you’ll have to prepare an amended return. “You may think you’re doing yourself a favor and you’re not,” says Eric Smith, an IRS spokesman.

—Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

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