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Tax center staff ready to provide free help with annual 'ritual'

(U.S. Air Force Illustration by Airman 1st Class Alexandre Montes)

Tax season can be a very stresfful time. However, the Offutt tax center is here to help. To make an appointment, call 294-3759. U.S. Air Force Illustration by Airman 1st Class Alexandre Montes

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- It's the start of a new year. For many Americans that means putting away holiday decorations, making resolutions and returning to work. For most Americans, it also means it's time to gather necessary forms and receipts for the Internal Revenue Service.

Thanks to the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, free assistance is available for most members of Team Offutt as they complete the "ritual" of state and federal tax preparation.

The Air Force has worked with the IRS for 25 years to have free tax centers on installations, which is great for patrons and volunteers alike, according to Pam Clark, site coordinator here.

The Offutt Tax Center staff, made up of about 40 volunteers trained through the VITA program, is ready to help active-duty members, military retirees and authorized family members with most aspects of preparing and submitting taxes. Guard and Reserve members on Title 10 or Title 30 orders as well as those receiving retirement benefits can also take advantage of tax services at the center.

Although people can't get their returns done at the center yet, patrons who plan to file 1040 or 1040A tax forms can call 294-3759 now to make an appointment. Those who plan to file EZ forms can go to the center on a walk-in basis starting Jan. 25.
Appointments begin Feb. 1 for filers using the "long form."

Once open, the center will assist customers Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.

When preparing to file income tax returns, there are several things to keep in mind, according to Ms. Clark.

The main consideration is to make sure you have all of your information with you when you arrive at the center, she said.

For example, "if you buy and sell stocks, bring in all of your sales (documentation) with a cost basis," said Tech. Sgt. Keith Bachand, an Air Force Weather Agency weather forecaster and VITA tax preparer. "If you bought a house, bring in all the paperwork that you received at closing."

There's a list of things to take to tax appointments at http://www.offutt.af.mil/units/55thwinglawcenter/index.asp under legal assistance library and on the IRS web site at www.irs.gov. There's also a tax center intake sheet at the Offutt site that can be completed ahead of time to help speed the tax preparation process.

Each tax year also brings change, according to Ms. Clark. Changes for the 2009 tax year that benefit taxpayers include:

-- If a taxpayer paid their tax bill by credit card and charged a convenience fee, he or she can claim the fee on the Schedule A under miscellaneous itemized deductions.

-- If a taxpayer received unemployment income, the first $2,400 is excluded from income.

-- There are four choices for the education credit that will help more taxpayers who are going to college or who have a family member in college.

-- There's an additional deduction for state, local sales and excise tax on the purchase of a new passenger automobile, light truck, motorcycle or motor home after Feb. 17, 2009. This deduction is for taxpayers who use the standard deduction and those who itemize.

-- Concerning children of divorced or separated parents, if the divorce decree or separation agreement went into effect after 1984 but before 2009, the noncustodial parent can still attach certain pages from the decree or agreement to the tax return. Noncustodial parents with any decree or agreement executed after 2008 must have the Form 8332 to claim a child on returns.

Although the deadline for filing taxes is April 15, it's a good idea to start a tax information folder now, according to Ms. Clark.

"Put last year's return in it and then as things come in the mail or electronically to you, just add them to the folder," Ms. Clark said. "Also, review last year's return to see what things were included in it to see if you still have the same items this year so you know what to be watching for to put in the folder."

It's also good to remember there isn't a penalty for getting taxes done early, Sergeant Bachand said.

"Even if you owe, the money won't be taken until April 15," he said. "You also may discover something that can be fixed and have time to do it."

This is Sergeant Bachand's fourth year as a trained volunteer tax preparer. Before being able to assist taxpayers, Sergeant Bachand and the other volunteers had to complete 32 hours of IRS training and pass a test covering all aspects of a federal tax return. They also had to complete eight hours of training on state tax returns for Iowa and Nebraska.

"When I moved from Hawaii to Offutt I had a lot of questions about what I could claim (on my taxes), so I decided to volunteer," he said. "Volunteers get to learn a lot about the tax code that help them file their own taxes.

"The people coming in get a free service that's equivalent to what most people get when they go to a seasonal tax preparer," he added, "and I feel VITA volunteers are willing to offer more advice than other places."

"The biggest benefit to volunteers is the knowledge they gain to help themselves and to help others," Ms. Clark said. "And, for clients using the program, the biggest benefit is that it's a free service."

Last year, the Offutt tax center saved patrons more than $320,000 in preparation fees, according to Ms. Clark.

People who aren't eligible to receive assistance at the Offutt Tax Center may qualify for free help at an off-base VITA location. To find a local VITA site, call 1-800-829-1040.