For the first time ever, the entire United States had a three-month extension on filing income tax returns. (Did you get yours in on time? The deadline was last Wednesday.) I finished mine with two days to spare, despite my original intention to have it done by mid-April. A portion of our income comes from investments, so our return is a little complicated, and different every year. We get lots of forms with lots of figures on them, with the warning that Internal Revenue is also being furnished with a copy.
Now, some of those figures have clear directions where they are to be entered on the 1040. But the notes for others say “check the instructions for where to report.”
Have you seen the instruction book for the 1040? It’s, like, 108 pages long. And if I only had to fill out the 1040, that would be fine. But there are bunches of “schedules” and hundreds of other forms, and pretty much you need to fill them out before you know whether they apply to you or not.
Every February I begin to work on my return. I have a folder where I keep important receipts and statements all year long, but some of the documents I need don’t come until late—this year in late April, though I usually get them a month earlier. So I devote an hour most Sundays to accomplishing what I can—sorting my papers, starting to add up different categories, printing out the tax forms I think I need, and reading and rereading directions.
Man, the government does not make it easy to determine what’s taxable and what’s not. And the worksheets seem really random. “Write the smaller of line 5 or line 12 on line 37. Subtract line 37 from line 22. If line 37 is larger than line 22, enter 0. . .”
When July 1 came around, I still wasn’t done, so I began working on taxes every day. Eventually I found out where one of my mystery numbers gets entered by looking at a form for something else entirely.
There’s got to be another way.
My sons generally do their taxes on the day they’re due. They both had last minute questions about payments they’d received that I had no experience with. We were all frustrated with reading and rereading instructions, trying to figure out where to enter the amounts and whether they were taxable or not. I think next year I’ll go on vacation from April 8-16 so they have to figure it out on their own.
The IRS writes terrible instructions. The processes are unnecessarily unwieldy. You almost have to hire an accountant to figure it out for you. And I’m cheap and stubborn and don’t want to. I don’t trust tax software—I’ve heard horror stories.
In contrast, my Kenmore appliances have perhaps the clearest instruction manuals I’ve ever seen. The language is similar to what ordinary people use to communicate every day. You don’t have to be an engineer to read these documents. They don’t send you to different documents or to multiple locations within the book to find the answer to your questions. The name of every control button is given to you, along with its function. Each process is broken down into logical steps. One or two readings and I’m golden.
I wish the government would hire Sears’ technical writers to draft their tax booklet.