03/20/1989 at 01:00 AM EST
April 15 cometh, and among those quivering in anticipation is senior writer Fred Bernstein (looking overtaxed, above), who recently completed a melancholy trek through a mountain of tax-preparation guides. His interest in finding useful assistance in dealing with the dread Form 1040 is not purely journalistic: His accountant has gone out of business. Thus impelled, Bernstein reports below on his discoveries as he approaches the crudest month's cruelest day.
As if to take all the fun out of its (generally) lower rates, the IRS has made its rules more stultifyingly incomprehensible than ever. The official guide to filling out a "basic" return (the unabashedly anti-deduction Publication 17) runs to 223 pages, in addition to listing another 100 publications you can send away for. This may all be well and good, or at least tolerable, if you're a CPA. It's terrible if you're not. As for calling the IRS itself for help, according to a check last year by the government's General Accounting Office, the IRS taxpayer-assistance service may be giving wrong answers to 39 percent of the questions it gets on its toll-free hot lines.
Luckily, those who insist on doing their returns themselves have more places to turn for help than ever before. The number of books on the market is growing, though slowly, since it takes a long time to put together an authoritative guide. And the range of tax-preparation programs for home computers is increasing faster than an IRS auditor can disallow deductions. There are at least 25 software packages available this year. Only video tax tools seem to be on the decline, perhaps because even the most ambitious taxpayer may find it hard to keep his eyes glued to a tax tape when there's a Gilligan's Island rerun crying out to be watched (taxes will never be interesting, but those castaways may just make it off the island this time, right?). Besides, as the one new video on the market proves, it's impossible for a cassette to include a small fraction of the information needed to complete even a simple return.
Here's a sampling of some of the kind of help you can count on between now and April 15.