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Made a mistake? Form 1040X can save the day

Uh-oh! You were slipping that W-2 copy into the drawer when it caught your eye.

How could you have missed that when you did your final filing review and dropped your return in the mail? And what can you do about it now?

As it turns out, plenty.

The complexity of the tax code, coupled with the frantic lives most of us lead, means that there is ample opportunity for tax-filing mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes could cost you, like forgetting to include income earned on an investment account. Other times it might lower your tax bill, such as when you run across that forgotten receipt for a generous charitable contribution you made.

Either way, the Internal Revenue Service provides second chances to get your tax return right with Form 1040X.

This X-file is normal
There's nothing supernatural about this X-file.

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For a tax form, the 1040X is pretty easy to complete. Basically, the IRS wants to know what you originally reported, what your corrected numbers are and why you are making the changes. There's also a section for adding or subtracting personal exemptions in case there was some confusion as to whether you properly counted someone as a dependent.

And, in most cases, you can change your filing status, which could get you a bigger refund. For example, a new divorcee filed this year as a single taxpayer. But that cost her some tax money because she's got custody of the kids. She should have filed as a head of household, which would have provided her with a larger larger standard deduction.

These are the kind of things you most definitely should correct with a 1040X, say tax experts.

When the IRS benefits
Taxpayers also should be diligent about correcting their returns even if it means they end up paying a bit more in taxes.

Why? Because it's a pretty safe bet that the IRS is going to discover your error eventually.

If it's a simple addition or subtraction mistake, there's no need to amend the return. The IRS says its computers will detect the error, notify you and adjust your return automatically.

But if it's something bigger -- you overlooked a Form 1099 for $1,500 you got from a freelance house painting job -- and you catch and correct it first, it could save you from paying even more to the IRS.

The IRS may not penalize you for this honest mistake, but it sure will collect some interest on the proper amount you didn't pay on time in the first place. The sooner you correct the error, the less interest you'll face.

"We had one preparer who filed a client's return," explains Brenda Schafer, senior tax research coordinator for H&R Block, "and then the employer informed the person that he would be getting a corrected W-2, so it had to be re-filed.

"You just want to be sure you have a correct return," Schafer says, "whether it's in your favor or not."

Year-round amended filing season
Such corrections are a year-round occurrence, but tax professionals say the need to amend a return often is discovered during the following year's filing season.

"Sometimes when you're having next year's return prepared," notes Schafer, "the professional says, 'Oh, you didn't tell me about that last time.'"

Then there's the case where a little more knowledge can mean more tax filing work.

"We've had people take income tax courses to help them do their own returns and pick up items where they could or should amend a return," Schafer says.

Amending time limits
But don't go searching through old files for ancient tax returns in the hopes of possibly eking out a few more refund dollars.

The IRS generally gives taxpayers three years after the original return's filing date to make any changes with a Form 1040X. If you filed early, you get three years from the return's due date to correct any errors.

Your window to amend closes a bit if you didn't pay all the tax you owed when you filed. In this case, you must revise your return within two years of the day that you finally paid your full bill to Uncle Sam. If, however, the two-years-since-payment date arrives after the standard three-year time limit, the IRS says you can amend your return using the deadline that comes later. Similarly, if you paid your taxes late, but not that late, and the three-year grace period provides you more revision time, you can use it.

And don't automatically reject filing an amended return out of fear of inviting an IRS audit.

Sure, the IRS will take a close look at an amended return that's netting you you a refund. And that means tax agents could conceivably look at your original tax paperwork in the process.

So why, ask hesitant amended filers, should they invite the extra attention, especially if they file just within the three-year amendment limit -- the same time period after which the original 1040 would be off the tax examination radar?

"An amended return might just draw attention to a return," acknowledges Schafer. "But, really, people shouldn't be concerned. The main thing with tax filing is to get it right."

And that means getting it right any time.

-- Updated: March 16, 2007

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