Many military members seek out assistance each year when it comes to tax time. Getting help with your taxes can keep your stress level down during tax season and make doing your return easy and painless. If you are in the military and looking for assistance in preparing your taxes, you do have options.
Free tax preparation
What some military members might not realize is that they and their families have the option of getting free assistance with their tax return under the Voluntary Income Tax Assistance Program, or VITA. If you decide to get free assistance with your return, you will need to find a VITA location and set up an appointment. The tax preparers that offer their services are trained on specific tax issues that are relevant to military members. When you get assistance at a VITA location, generally you will file your taxes right there, electronically.
When I returned from serving in Iraq, I was not aware that this was an option. Not knowing where to go, we went to the local Wal-Mart and had one of those "drive thru" tax services do our taxes. They did the job, but all they did was fill in numbers. Needing more planning the following year, we opted to go to a local CPA.
Tips for finding a tax preparer on your own
If you decide you do not want to use VITA for tax preparation assistance, you can use these tips to help you find a good tax preparer.
- Go on referrals. One of the best ways to find a good tax preparer is to find out who others use and like. In this case, it is probably best for you to ask others you know who are in the military. Find out who they use, as you will want to find an accountant that specializes in returns for military members. The CPA that we eventually chose had been recommended to me years before, so I was comfortable trying him out.
- Be sure you check their qualifications. Finding a good tax preparer means finding someone who is qualified. Find out what their qualifications are, see if they are affiliated with professional organizations, check the better business bureau, etc. Also, make sure they are trained and qualified to do military tax returns.
- Will the tax preparer be thorough? The last thing you want to do is to go with a tax preparer that will not do the work needed to get you the best return possible. Therefore, you want to make sure you chose one who will take the time to ask the right questions and collect the necessary data to maximize your return.
- Find out the fees, before you get started. While you want to hire a good tax preparer, at the same time, you don't want to hire one that is going to cost you an arm and a leg. Your best bet is to find one that offers a flat fee and is in line with other tax preparers in the industry. Steer clear from those that want a percentage of your return or bonuses for getting you a higher return.
After you have chosen a tax preparer, whether you use VITA or find your own, be sure to review your return carefully before filing. Mistakes, even simple ones like your name being misspelled, can hold up and mess up your return. If you have any questions at all about what is or isn't on your return, ask your preparer questions until you are completely satisfied that everything is correct. Only then should you sign and submit your return. Finally, make sure you keep your return and any supporting documentation for a minimum of seven years.
Jeff Rose is an Iraqi combat veteran and Certified Financial Planner Professional who runs the well known financial planning blog Good Financial Cents. He is also working on his first book by combining the discipline of his Army training with the rigors of his financial planning experience to help people take control of their life and money. You can read more about it at Soldier of Finance.