Each year about this time, thousands of people call the Internal Revenue Service wanting to know whether they can write off expenses for pets. (They can't.)
Some even ask if they can deduct costs for houseplants. "I guess it's a way of breaking the ice," says Keith Kimball, public affairs specialist for the IRS. "They know they can't do that."
Here are the questions IRS representatives hear the most.
Question: Does everyone have to file a return?
Answer: No. Whether U.S. citizens or residents have to file a federal tax return depends on several factors, including filing status, age, gross income and whether someone else can claim you as a dependent.
There are special situations in which you would have to file a return even if you were under the specified gross income level. For example, if you had income tax withheld from your pay, you will have to file to get a refund.
Q: Can I claim my mom as a dependent?
A: There are five tests to determine if someone can be claimed as a dependent. All five must be met.
* The dependent must be related or live in the taxpayer's house all year.
* The dependent can't file a joint return with someone else unless it is only to claim a refund of tax withheld.
* The dependent must be a U.S. citizen or resident or a resident of Canada or Mexico.
* The dependent must have less than $2,450 gross income.
* The person who wants to claim the mother as a dependent must provide more than one half her total support, including food, clothing, shelter, and medical and recreational expenses.
Q: What amount of my Social Security benefits must I include in my taxable income?
A: If your only income was Social Security benefits, usually none is taxable. If you had income in addition to Social Security, your benefits are taxable only if your income goes above certain base amounts:
* $25,000 for a single, head of household or qualifying widow(er) with a dependent child, or if you are married and filing a separate return and not living with your spouse during the year.
* $32,000 for a married person filing a joint return.
* Zero for married people living together at any time during the year and filing separately.
How much of your benefits are taxable also depends on your income and filing status.
Q: Is it better to file electronically?
A: According to IRS, electronic filing is safer and more accurate than mailing your tax return. That is because the report is transmitted over telephone lines directly to an IRS computer, where it is automatically checked for errors and missing information. Most IRS offices and many tax professionals offer electronic filing.
Q: How long will it take to get my refund?
A: About four to eight weeks after you mail your return. If you file electronically, it should take about three weeks. The earlier you file, the faster you'll get your refund. The most common errors holding up refunds are incorrect names or Social Security numbers.
Q: I didn't have enough money to pay my taxes on April 15, so I didn't file a federal income tax return. Now I'm worrying that I'll go to jail.
A: The best course of action would be to stop worrying and file a tax return. The IRS does not send people to jail because their tax returns are a little late, but it does charge interest and penalties for late filing and late paying. The larger of these penalties is for late filing.
Q: Where can I get help with my taxes?
A: People may ask IRS representative questions by calling (800) 829-1040. But that number is often busy. Recorded information on tax returns or refunds is available at (800) 829-4477. People who need help, but not a complete return prepared, can go to one of four walk-in IRS offices at 300 N. Los Angeles St., Los Angeles; 6230 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys; 9050 Flair Drive, El Monte, and 11000 W. Wilshire Blvd., Westwood.