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Many Happy Returns

Organization: Keeping receipts, forms and canceled checks labeled and in order can make doing taxes less of a chore.

April 04, 1998|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Patrick Hubbard tosses everything in a kitchen drawer. The forms, the receipts, the canceled checks--by April, they've become a mean pile of anxiety.

Hubbard, a Garden Grove teacher who lives in Westminster, pulls out that drawer slowly these days, fretting over the job ahead. It's all about taxes and his "pathological inability" to get organized.

"I know I should be putting things in their proper place throughout the year, but I never do," he said with a sigh, then laughed. "I get something and then it's right into the drawer. . . . It's like I expect everything to sort itself."

With a little more than a week to go, Hubbard will join legions of other woeful procrastinators trying to meet the April 15 tax deadline. As everyone, including Hubbard, knows, a good filing system and a bit of routine diligence would make the job easier.

Isn't that like telling yourself to go to the gym every night, service the car on schedule or start shopping for Christmas in July?

Reminded that there are plenty of good organizing helpers--from pretty, multicolored folders to extravagant, accordion-styled portfolios--at drug- and office supply stores all over, Hubbard grimaced. "I can't imagine taking the time to mark all the folders [then] dutifully fill them up," he said. "I just wait until the last minute, then it's me and my mess."

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A company called FileSolutions recently came out with its Home Filing System package ($30, Container Store, Costa Mesa), claiming to make the mess less messy. Color-coded tags for folders include an index booklet for easy retrieval. A manual gives basic tips for the slow and reluctant. Authors Don and Nora Donnelly suggest keeping documents and tax returns--in perfect order--for seven years, just in case the IRS comes calling.

Joan Karvegian said she could use such help, even remedial. She runs a home mail-order business in Seal Beach with her husband, Robert. As with all the jobs in their office, they split responsibilities when it comes to tax preparation.

That means that whoever pays a tax-deductible bill, for anything from a new computer to a stack of envelopes, has to keep track of the receipts and tabulate them later. Hard to do when each usually files documents in separate envelopes marked "tax stuff."

"We're both pretty good about the day-to-day workings of our little operation," Karvegian said, "but pretty hopeless [with the taxes]. There's so much to do [every day] that we ignore some things, like keeping good records.

"Sometimes I wonder if we're losing deductions by losing documents. But mainly we go into a panic [and] end up with a big headache. . . . We still haven't filed, and that's bad news."

Lynn Hansen of Huntington Beach needs organizational therapy. She handles tax filing for her husband, William, an office manager at a real estate company. Lynn Hansen always feels nervous this time of year because of her casual record-keeping, but it's her longtime accountant who's left with the migraine.

"I put everything in a big folder that I bring to him," Hansen explained. "I pretty much lay it all on his desk, and then we just start sorting."

For several years, his reaction has been the same: He frowns and then patiently asks Hansen to come next year with papers divided into simple, meaningful categories. Nothing too complicated, he tells her, just areas such as deductible receipts, charity contributions, business or education expenses and the like.

"I've known my accountant for years, [and] he's very patient," she said. "I should do what he says, but I don't know. I just keep telling him that next year I'll be better, but I never am."

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