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Deductive reasoning at your fingertips

NEW YORK — It's not the sexiest gift, but times are tough and it just might be one that's greatly appreciated this holiday season. What's that? One of the new 2009 tax guides that are starting to hit bookstores.

With the health of the economy still weighing on many of our minds, die-hard do-it-yourselfers might be looking for additional guidance on how to maximize their take-home pay. What's more, heading into next year many people could be forced to cut out their tax preparer as a way to cut costs.

One of the most popular annual tax guides, J.K. Lasser's Your Income Tax 2009, is already on sale. The Lasser guide tops 800 pages, but contributing editor Barbara Weltman said it shouldn't intimidate anyone.

"It's really written so that anybody could understand it," she said. "It's all accessible through the table of contents and a really extensive index."

Indeed it's not intended to be read cover to cover, but is more of an ongoing resource. "You check when you have a particular question or situation and you're going to be able to get an answer," Weltman said.

The Lasser guide opens with a section on "What's new for 2008," that breaks down many of the changes made to tax laws this year. However, readers should note that it was published before Congress passed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, commonly called the bailout bill.

This is important because, in addition to setting up money to rescue troubled banks, it also included a host of tax provisions, including adjustments to the Alternative Minimum Tax and extensions to a number of tax credit that were due to expire.

But purchasers of the book are provided access to Lasser's Web site, www.jklasser.com, which has updates on laws passed after the book went to press, along with other features, including tax forms and calculators. "Within the past 12 months, we've had six major tax acts, so there's a lot of new stuff," Weltman said.

The guide contains a variety of tips, alerts and cautions in its margins to help flag important items for readers. It retails for $18.95, and is available at most bookstores and many major retailers.

Weltman also wrote a second book from Lasser, also selling for $18.95, called 1001 Deductions & Tax Breaks that details potential deductions by categories from medical expenses to investing, business, travel and entertainment. Each item is described in detail, with benefits and pitfalls broken down in separate sections and tips on planning and what Internal Revenue Service form to use to claim the deduction.

A broader look at taxes is taken by PricewaterhouseCoopers in its 2009 Guide to Tax and Financial Planning, $18.95. The paperback isn't really intended to be a guide to filing your tax return, said co-author Brittney Saks, a partner with the firm's Private Company Services practice. Such a guide might be helpful to friends and family dealing with new issues, given the stock market slump, such as how to plan fthe timing for taking tax-loss deductions.

"It's more concepts based," she said. "We look at this as more of a reference guide to look at for people when they have questions from a planning standpoint."

As a result the Pricewaterhouse guide discusses topics such as planning for 2010, a year when many tax laws are set to expire, including the tax cuts advanced by President Bush and that President-elect Obama campaigned against. It also offers tips on year-end planning for individuals and business owners.

On the horizon are two other annual tax guides. The Ernst & Young Tax Guide for 2009 will be available Dec. 15, and will include the changes made in the bailout bill, said Robert Crane of Publishnow.net. And Taxes for Dummies will be go to press in late December, said a spokeswoman for publisher John Wiley & Sons.

Tom Ochsenschlager, vice president of tax for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, quipped that these books can be "a sure cure for insomnia," but said that while the average return is not that complicated to file, "you have to know what you don't know."

The holiday season is always a busy time, but procrastination will not help you minimize your tax bill. Start to take a look now, as there are a few moves you can make before year-end and because tax forms will hit your mailbox sooner than you know.

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