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Finding Answers to Tax Questions

A reader writes in asking:

“2011 was my first year with a full-time job, and I’m attempting to prepare my tax return on my own. The form instructions are better than I’d expected, but I still have several questions. Instead of emailing you or somebody else with every single question, I’d prefer learn how to find this stuff on my own.

But the IRS’s site isn’t the easiest to navigate, their search tool kind of sucks, and I’m never sure whether I can fully trust articles that I read elsewhere. Do you have any trusted resources that you use on a regular basis that you can recommend?”

In my experience, the key to finding answers to tax questions is, naturally, to use Google. More specifically though, the key is to use Google to search a specific site. This can be done by adding “site:whateversiteyouwanttosearch.com” to any query.

For example, if you wanted to search IRS.gov for information about the Child and Dependent Care Credit, you could try the following Google search:

site:irs.gov child and dependent care credit

Additional tip: If you’re looking at a particularly lengthy document and struggling to find the applicable material, you can simultaneously hit the control and F keys (command + F for Mac OS) to search the document for a specific word or phrase.

Tangent: As you might imagine, this type of Google search has tons of other uses as well. For example, to find answers to Social Security-related questions, you can use Google to search “site:ssa.gov.” Or to find that Bogleheads thread from last year in which Taylor Larimore shared something particularly insightful about safe withdrawal rates, you could search “site:bogleheads.org taylor larimore safe withdrawal rates.”

Searching the Internal Revenue Code

It’s important to remember, however, that most documents on the IRS website (including IRS publications) don’t actually count as legal authority. Granted, the IRS is a credible source, so you can usually count on them to be correct, but if you want to be absolutely sure, the place to look is the actual Internal Revenue Code.

The place I always look when I want to read an IRC section is Cornell University’s website. But again, the site’s search function leaves much to be desired. And doing a Google search with “site:cornell.edu” isn’t much better because, as you’d expect, Cornell’s site includes a vast array of pages other than those on which the IRC is published.

Fortunately, you can use Google not only to search a specific domain, but also to search certain directories on that domain. So, in this case, if you take a look at the URLs for Cornell’s Internal Revenue Code pages, you’ll notice that they all begin with http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/. So if we again wanted to find information about the Child and Dependent Care Credit, we could do the following Google search:

site:http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/ child and dependent care credit

Of course, that still leaves you with the challenge of figuring out what the heck the actual code section(s) means. 🙂

For More Information, See My Related Book:

Book3Cover

Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • The difference between deductions and credits,
  • Itemized deductions vs. the standard deduction,
  • Several money-saving deductions and credits and how to make sure you qualify for them,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A testimonial from a reader on Amazon:

"Very easy to read and is a perfect introduction for learning how to do your own taxes. Mike Piper does an excellent job of demystifying complex tax sections and he presents them in an enjoyable and easy to understand way. Highly recommended!"

Comments

  1. For the reader who isn’t familiar with how taxes work, I would recommended getting a book like JK Lasser’s Guide. It goes into explaining things in more details than the IRS publications. It’s fairly inexpensive at about $15. You don’t have to buy it every year.

  2. For doing your taxes on your own, I’d recommend actually referencing (or even reading) IRS Publication 17. I think I did my own taxes by hand for a few years without ever actually referring to that document. It is actually useful for basic questions that aren’t complicated for other reasons. Later on I worked for H&R Block for one season and did their mandatory training — I thought their training was good for getting a bigger picture on tax law. Working for Block, not so great, but the training and one season was still worth doing IMO.

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