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Official offers tax guidance as deadline looms

WASHINGTON -- With the April 15 tax deadline around the corner, a defense official has offered guidance on how troops can file their returns, and reminded servicemembers to submit their forms on time.

Servicemembers have two options for filing: they either can seek advice from a legal assistance office on their base, where Internal Revenue Service-trained specialists can help them complete their forms, or they can do it online, Army Maj. John Johnson said during an interview April 7 with the Pentagon Channel.

Major Johnson, executive director of the Armed Forces Tax Council, steered troops toward the online option, which features an application created by representatives from the Defense Department and H&R Block, the commercial tax preparation company.

"I would personally be more comfortable using it, because I know that lots of military people use it, it's supported by the military, and it's less likely to have errors or problems," he said of the online option available at the Military OneSource Web site.

"They also have a toll-free number," he added, "that military folks can call and get help if they're going through their tax form and there's a question or problem."

By virtue of receiving input from military experts, the H&R Block program is tailored to servicemembers' needs, Major Johnson said.

"It's free, online tax filing," he said, "and (Defense Department) personnel review (the application) to make sure that it works correctly. And if problems come up, we try to fix them."

Major Johnson recommended seeking help through military bases' legal assistance office in cases where troops are confused by complex returns, or if their preference is to have their forms completed by experts.

"The easiest way to do it is online," he said. "But if you have complicated issues or you're just not comfortable doing your own taxes, then it's best to just go into the legal assistance office on base and have them do your taxes for you," he said.

Tax experts on base are IRS-trained people who work under the Volunteer Tax Assistance program, he added.

While the April 15 deadline applies to most troops stationed in the United States, servicemembers deployed to a combat zone or a "contingency operation," as defined by the Defense Department, qualify for a 180-day extension upon their return.

"They're eligible for it if they're serving in a contingency operation, which would be a combat zone or something else that's designated as a contingency operation. Haiti, for instance is designated," he said. "So you're entitled to wait until you return from the operation and then you have up to 180 days to file your taxes, no penalties, no interest for that delay."

Major Johnson recommended that troops currently or soon to deploy to a combat zone or contingency plan area e-mail the IRS their projected deployment plan. Troops should include their name, Social Security number and the location of their deployment, and include that their area of operation makes them eligible for the extension.

"The IRS does recommend that you notify them, and it's a good idea," he said. "That way, they know what's going on and they won't send a nasty letter to your spouse back at home. E-mails to the IRS from deployed troops should be addressed to Combatzone@irs.gov.

He added that troops who spent time in combat zones in 2009 should make sure they are taking advantage of the combat zone exemption, which allows them to withhold income earned during a combat tour from being taxed.

"Of course, like anything else, you should double-check that," he said. "Look at your W-2 form and make sure that it hasn't reported income that you earned in a combat zone."