You can count on getting at least a $30 to $40 fatter tax refund this spring – or you'll owe that much less when you file – thanks to the government's effort to redress an error that has its roots in the 19th century.
At issue is a levy on long-distance telephone calls born in 1898 as a 1% luxury tax to help finance the Spanish-American War. Last year, the government conceded that collecting the tax was, well, illegal.
The problem was that tax applied to charges based on the time and distance of the call. Although your grandkids might not remember, you know that's the way things used to work. The farther away you called, the more you paid for each minute you talked. In recent years, though, the distance part of the equation has disappeared. And that's the rub.
Over the past few years, some big companies, including Home Depot and Hewlett-Packard, challenged the government and won case after case. Finally, the government gave up and hung up on the long-distance tax effective August 1, 2006. Uncle Sam promised refunds of money collected since March 1, 2003. (The IRS says the statute of limitations won't let it refund taxes collected before that date.)
How to Get Your Money
The IRS has come up with an easy way for most of us to claim a refund. You'll find a line in the payment sections of your tax return to claim your credit, so you get the benefit even if you don't itemize deductions. For those of you who don't file a return, the IRS has created a special form, the 1040EZ-T, to request a tax refund.
Don't want to plow through 41 months' worth of old phone bills? You can claim a standard credit based on the number of exemptions you take. A single person who claims one exemption gets $30, while a couple gets $40. A couple with one dependent child gets a $50 credit and couples with two or more children get $60 – the top credit allowed. The IRS says it came up with the figures based on telephone usage data, and that the amounts include interest back to the time the money was collected.
If you spent an average of more than $25 a month for long-distance service during the refund period, you can seek more than the standard credit. But you might decide it's not the worth the effort once you see the new Form 8913. Basically, you need to tote up the federal tax you paid on long-distance calls between March 2003 and August 2006, group the payments in three-month increments and then figure the interest you're due on each quarter's tax.
There's no one-size-fits-all refund for business owners. Businesses can use a formula that bases their credit on total phone charges during the refund period rather than the actual tax paid. For more details, visit the Telephone Tax Refunds section of the IRS website.
Hidden Tax Breaks
Although the telephone tax credit is easy to find on the tax forms, that's not the case for three tax savers that Congress revived in December – after the IRS sent the forms to the printer. These tax breaks were set to expire without action by lawmakers. You're affected if:
- You qualify to deduct state sales taxes (which you surely do if you itemize and live in a state that does not have its own income tax).
- You qualify to deduct college tuition paid during 2006.
- You qualify to claim the special $250 deduction for expenses paid for classroom materials by teachers and teachers' aides.
Although none of these breaks is mentioned on the forms, all are available for 2006. You can find information on how to claim your deductions at www.irs.gov or by calling 800-829-1040.
Reprinted with permission. All contents © 2007 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc.