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As Tax Day nears, make sure you've got all your deductions

Taxpayers have a little more than two weeks until April 17 -- to file their state and federal returns.

But let's roll out some "last-minute" tax tips right now -- well before the actual last minute.

Even if you owe the Treasury money, some experts recommend filing electronically before the actual due date. Why?

You receive an immediate confirmation the return has been accepted. You could spot any fraud early on; say, if anyone tried to file a return using your name and Social Security number to scam a refund.

It is perfectly OK to file your return days or weeks before the April 17 deadline -- and then pay what you owe by the deadline, said Marshall Hunt, certified public accountant and director of the tax-assistance program of the Accounting Aid Society of Detroit.

When you electronically file a return with a balance due, the software provides a voucher you can print out and later mail with your payment, Hunt noted.

Now, are you ready to tackle those tax tips?

*Did your place of worship send you a receipt for donations? Some churches have cut back on mailing and are asking their faithful to request documentation.

*Did you donate a car to a charity that will turn it into quick cash?

Don't try to claim a $10,000 deduction for donating a car the charity couldn't sell for $1,000. Generally, the amount you'd be able to claim as a deduction depends on what the charity received when it sold the car or truck.

In most cases, you can't simply deduct the amount you see online for a used car.

But Bob Scharin, senior tax analyst for Thomson Reuters in New York, noted that a tax complication arises if the charity does not sell the car in an arm's-length transaction.

Say the charity uses the vehicle in connection with its charitable purpose, such as delivering meals.

Or say the charity's mission is to give a car at a low charge or no charge to a low-income person who uses it to drive to work.

In those types of events, Scharin said, the deduction is based on the car's fair market value, rather than being based on the price at which the car is sold by the charity.

If you claim a tax deduction of $500 or less, you just need a standard statement from a charity for a non-cash gift of $250 or more. For a larger deduction, you'd need to get a Form 1098-C, or a similar statement, from the charitable organization.

If you donate a car, truck, boat or plane, you cannot claim a write-off that's more than $500 if the charity does not give you a Form 1098-C.

*If you're working through a taxpayer-assistance program, such as AARP Tax Aide or the Accounting Aid Society, make sure to bring along your Social Security card or other documents to prove you are who you say, plus a picture ID.

*Be extra careful about who does your taxes. This tax season, the Internal Revenue Service warned seniors and others about schemes that tempt consumers to file tax refunds claiming inflated refunds.

Some schemes promise free money based on a nonexistent stimulus payment or some education credit, even if the victim is not attending college or paying college tuition for a son or daughter.

The IRS said another scheme wrongly claims that college credit is available to compensate people for the taxes paid on groceries in some states.

*Check out the retirement savers credit.

If contributions were made to a 401(k) or IRA, the taxpayer who meets the income limits may be eligible for a tax credit.

Barbara Weltman, contributing editor for J.K. Lasser's "Your Income Tax 2012," noted that income limits on eligibility for the retirement savers credit are higher for 2011 than previously allowed.

The income limit for the retirement savers credit is up to $28,250 for single taxpayers and up to $56,500 for married taxpayers who file jointly. The limit for the head of household is up to $42,375.

You must be at least 18 and cannot have been a full-time student during the calendar year.

The maximum credit is $2,000 if filing jointly and $1,000 if single.

The credit is based on a percentage of the qualifying contribution to the IRA or 401(k), with the highest rate going to taxpayers with the least income.

For example, if the couple's adjusted gross income was $40,000 in 2011, the maximum credit would be $200, Weltman noted. That's 10 percent of contributions up to $2,000.

The couple would need to have an adjusted gross income of no more than $34,000 to get the top credit of $1,000 each, she said. That's 50 percent of contributions up to $2,000 for each spouse.