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The big tax questions you’re too embarrassed to ask

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NEW YORK — Unless you’re an accounting geek, chances are you don’t like thinking about taxes.

But when it comes to the IRS, you can’t just bury your head in the sand and claim ignorance.

Here are answers to a few seemingly dumb and super-simple questions that actually are neither.

(Hint: Wondering when Tax Day is? If you’re relying on your iPhone calendar to tell you, the date that comes up may be wrong.)

Do I really have to file a federal tax return?


The only time you’re not required to file is if your income is less than your personal exemption plus your standard deduction, both of which are determined by your marital status and age.

You can use this table to figure out your personal situation. But generally, if you made more than $23,100 in 2015, you will have to file, according to Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst of Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting US.

But here’s the thing: Even if your income is too low to have to file, you may want to anyway. Why? You could be owed a refund.

Too much tax may have been withheld from your paycheck or you may be entitled to a refundable tax break like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which pays money to qualified filers even if the credit exceeds their tax bill.

How long will it be before I get my refund?

Most filers get refunds and the vast majority of them get their refunds in hand within 21 days from the day they file their returns.

Is it true the IRS can withhold my refund?

Yes, there are four situations in which the IRS will not send you part or all of your refund: If you’re behind in paying federal student loans, child support, or state income taxes; or if you got too much of a government subsidy to buy health insurance on a federal or state exchange.

What if I know I owe money to the IRS but can’t afford to pay?

First, file anyway. If you don’t, you’ll be hit with a failure-to-file penalty, which is steep.

Second, take a deep breath. There are different payment plan options you can work out with the IRS so that you don’t have to pony up everything all at once.

If you owe more than $10,000, it’s advisable to have a tax attorney, enrolled agent or CPA with experience setting up payment plans to represent you.

If you owe less than that, you still might want to seek a tax professional’s help if all this stuff seems too daunting.

Okay so when do I have to file?

The deadline this year is Monday, April 18 for most people. (Usually, it’s April 15, but this year April 15 is Emancipation Day, a legal holiday in Washington, D.C. So no one will be home at the IRS that day.)

Residents of Massachusetts and Maine, however, have until Tuesday, April 19. That’s because the 18th is Patriot’s Day, a legal holiday in those states.

If that doesn’t fit into your schedule, you can file an automatic 6-month extension form.

Remember, though, an extension to file is not an extension to pay. Any remaining money you owe for tax year 2015 is due April 18.

So if you think you’ll have to cut the IRS a check, estimate how much it will be and pay it when you send in your extension form.

If you don’t, you’ll owe interest on the amount due and could be hit with a failure-to-pay penalty.

Will I get audited?

Probably not. Audit rates are very low these days — thanks largely to budget cuts at the IRS. But that doesn’t mean your return will always escape scrutiny, especially if you go out of your way to invite it.

Be sure to report all your income. The IRS has copies of any tax forms you get — from employers, banks, brokers, educational institutions or partnerships. And it uses an automated form-matching system to cross-check the numbers on your return match the numbers it has on file. If there’s any discrepancy, that could trigger an audit.

You’ll also call attention to your return if you blatantly try to claim tax breaks you don’t qualify for — say, trying to deduct all your housing costs for that home office you don’t have or reporting several years of losses for a small business that’s nothing more than a hobby.

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