WASHINGTON – People scurrying to meet tonight's tax deadline might consider this: It's taking you and your fellow Americans 6.6 billion hours to do all that paperwork. The basic tax return — the Form 1040 filed by most people every year — accounts for 1.6 billion hours.
The Internal Revenue Service (search) furnished those statistics to the White House budget office, which keeps tabs on the government's bureaucratic demands. The budget office notes that tax work "towers over the entire paperwork burden for the rest of the federal government" and accounts for some 80 percent.
"If anything, those numbers are probably understated," said David Keating, president of the National Taxpayers Union, which reports annually on the increasing complexity and demands of tax returns.
"A lot more of the cost is just planning to do the tax-smart thing. That can actually take a lot more time than reporting what you've done," he said.
Tax returns must be postmarked by midnight tonight.
Sensitive to the demands that tax laws put on weary taxpayers, the IRS has seven people working full time to reduce the anguish for filers. The IRS Office of Taxpayer Burden Reduction (search) looks for requirements that can be streamlined, reduced or eliminated under the law.
"We're trying to reduce unnecessary burden," said Michael Chesman, the office director.
Some of the burden cannot be avoided because it is a requirement of the tax laws. By attacking unnecessary burden, the office has shaved more than 200 million hours from tax paperwork since the office was created in 2001.
Chesman said the office plans next year to simplify the process for requesting an extension. The idea is to replace the current four-month, and subsequent two-month, deadline extensions with one simpler and automatic six-month extension.
Small changes can make a big difference. Letting more people use the simpler 1040 forms trimmed 5 million hours off the paperwork, for example. But the improvements are often swamped by the burdens associated with new tax laws. President Bush has enacted tax changes every year he has been in office.
For individuals wondering how long they will spend on tax forms, the taxpayers' group said it takes an estimated 26 hours and 48 minutes to prepare the Form 1040 (search) and its most common supporting schedules. That includes keeping records, learning the law, preparing forms, copying and mailing.
That actually is less than last year, when taxpayers could have expected to spend 28 hours and 30 minutes on the same forms.
Tax preparation software has made the task more manageable for many. Where the IRS estimates it takes 13 hours to fill out the Form 1040 by hand, Julie Miller, spokeswoman for Intuit, said its TurboTax software can do the same work in two hours to four hours.
Kathy Burlison, director of tax implementation at H&R Block, said software makes individuals and paid preparers more confident they have not missed something. It also makes mistakes much easier to fix.
Nevertheless, the forms are not just a drain on people's free time, but on the productivity of the country, Keating said.
"That's a huge, dead weight burden, trying to discern the tax code, what it rewards most," he said. "If we turn the nation into a paper-shuffling, law-figuring-out country, no one actually gets anything done."