8 Crucial Tips For Last-Minute Tax Filers

There’s just two weeks to go till tax time, and Bill Fleming, managing director in the personal financial services division of PricewaterhouseCoopers, has been cranking hard on his clients’ returns, but has yet to start the one he’ll file for himself and his wife. “I know all about procrastination,” he laughs.

If you haven’t finished your taxes --and fear waiting in line at the post office on April 18--you’re not alone. In fact, this year tax season may be moving a bit slower than usual because the last-minute, year-end tax agreement delayed the usual timetable for the Internal Revenue Service to get its forms and systems ready. “We are probably a week behind last year,” Fleming says. “Everything has been pushed back a week or so.”

The mad dash to the finish could cause extra problems this year because of the feds’ push for electronic filing; e-filing is now mandatory for accounting firms that do at least 100 returns a year, and there’s no precedent for how the government’s e-filing system will do under pressure.If you’re among those who are just now struggling through your taxes, here’s a quick guide to the things you need to know now:

IRA contributions. Making a contribution to your IRA is a necessity for a secure retirement, and if you fit the rules for a tax-deductible contribution, it will also lower your tax bill. The deadline for making your 2010 contribution (even if you get a tax extension) is April 18th. You’re allowed to contribute up to $5,000 ($6,000 if you’re 50 or older). The $5,000 contribution limit can go to either a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA, or be split between the two. If you want more in a Roth than you’re allowed by income limitations, you could set up a non-deductible IRA and immediately convert it, as there are no income limitations on conversions.

HSA contributions. If you were covered by a high-deductible health insurance plan in 2010, you have until tax day to make a tax-deductible contribution to a Health Savings Account. You can deduct that contribution even if you don’t itemize, and the money in your account will grow tax-free — and you can withdraw it tax-free, too, if you use it to pay uninsured medical expenses. Maximum contributions are $3,050 for singles and $6,150 for families (with an extra $1,000 if you’re over 55).

Roth conversions. If you converted an IRA to a Roth last year, as many people did to take advantage of the new rules that removed income limitations on conversions, you’ll owe taxes on that move starting this year. You get the option to pay the taxes, on 2010 conversions only, over two years; unless you expect to be in a higher tax bracket next year, that’s likely a better deal. Also, note: Your 1099 form won’t necessarily say that it’s for a conversion, so you need to be sure that your accountant knows.

New tax day for same-sex couples. This is the first tax season in which many gay and lesbian couples can file federal income tax returns reflecting community property rules. The IRS spelled out its new position in a legal memorandum last summer. If this affects you — and it may if you live in California, Nevada or Washington — you’ll need to sort your way through the thicket of community property rules. A good place to start is the lengthy explainer by tax attorney Kaye Thomas of Fairmark. While complicated, the new division could result in substantial tax savings for some couples; if that turns out to be the case, you can go back and amend prior years’ tax returns.

Tuition tax credits. There’s a few different ways to get tax benefits for education, but typically the best is the American Opportunity Credit. It can only go towards undergraduate education, but if you qualify it’s worth $2,500.

Capital gains, capital losses. If you’re like most investors, you’ve still got some tax loss carryforwards hanging around from the financial collapse. Use them now to offset gains, then take the permitted $3,000 deduction against income. If you’re still got capital losses after that, you’ll roll them over to next year again.

Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. It’s a complicated year this year. Normally tax day would be the 15th, but because of Emancipation Day, recognized as a holiday in Washington, D.C., the federal tax due date moved to Monday the 18th. The upside: You get the weekend. The downside for procrastinators: You get the weekend. The complicated piece is that not all states are sticking with the feds: Massachussetts, for example, celebrates Patriot’s Day on Monday the 18th, so its returns aren’t due till Tuesday the 19th (though residents will still have to file their federal returns the day before). And remember: April 18th isn’t just the deadline for 2010 income taxes. It’s also the deadline for first quarter estimated taxes (more on that later), gift tax returns (due if you gave more than $13,000), and the last day you can claim a refund you were due for 2007.

Extensions. If you just can’t get it together to file on April 18th, file for an extension to avoid the hefty penalties for late filing. It’s automatic and it lasts for six months — till October. But beware: Getting an extension doesn’t extend the time to actually pay your taxes, so if you think you’ll owe money, it’s best to send a guestimated payment to minimize late-payment penalties. “In the last week before the deadline, we may get a lot more extensions depending on whether the IRS’s website crashes under the pressure of electronic filing or we crash under the pressure of electronic filing,” Fleming says. “We think it’s going to be okay, but it’s like being in line at the post office. You want to be there before the rush.”