If you are new to the military or new to doing your own taxes while serving, sorting out your pay and benefits can be daunting. Some choose to pay a professional tax preparer to take all the paperwork, run the numbers, and file your taxes. But you don’t have to pay for tax help as a service member. There are free tax preparation services for service members including MilTax and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance options at military bases around the world.
Free Tax Prep For Military Members: VITA
The Department of Defense operates a program called VITA, or Volunteer Income Tax Assistance through an entity called the Armed Forces Tax Council. VITA provides tax support for military members and addresses duty-related tax issues including combat zone tax credits, Earned Income Credit applications, and more. VITA is the “main IRS outreach” for military taxpayers.
VITA is typically offered at military bases, but it is not available at ALL installations. VITA provides a location lookup tool to help you find the nearest tax assistance under this program. VITA is typically an in-person operation, and the volunteer tax preparers are given tax prep training to address military-specific tax issues and more typical ones.
Planning Your VITA Visit
In order to be fully prepared for your session with a VITA tax prep volunteer, you will need to gather a number of documents including a valid, unexpired photo ID plus:
- Social Security cards for the taxpayer, spouse, and dependents, where applicable;
- Proof of foreign status when applying for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number;
- Birth dates for primary and secondary earners and dependents on your tax return.
- Last year’s tax returns (state and federal)
In cases where a taxpayer or family member does not have a Social Security Number, you can substitute an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number assignment letter. You should come prepared with your banking information including account and routing numbers for Direct Deposit of your tax refund.
Volunteer Tax Assistance is typically meant for simple personal taxes. If you itemize deductions, have a small business, or require more involved assistance, you may wish to hire a tax professional rather than relying on a volunteer. And your VITA volunteer may not be qualified to (in their VITA role) help on more complex tax matters like itemized deductions.
But if your basic issues involve whether or not your combat zone tax exclusion is counted in the tax year you’re filing in, or if you have questions about how other military pay or benefits affect your taxes, VITA can help.
Some tax issues sound more complicated than they really are. For example, if you got a reenlistment bonus in the current tax year, you might not know (at first) that the IRS considers this supplemental income and has taxed it (in past tax seasons) at a flat rate (22% in one tax season). Will that apply for your current income tax filing? That depends on how laws may have changed since last year or when you got your bonus.
Free Tax Prep For Military Members: MilTax
MilTax is a more do-it-yourself type of tax help option in the form of a free online tax prep and e-filing program. MilTax helps you sort out unique military tax issues related to deployments, serving in an overseas location (combat zones and otherwise), the need to file income taxes in more than one state, and training pay issues.
The software is designed to help you complete and file your taxes electronically, but you can also get personalized assistance from “personalized tax consultants”. MilTax works using a questionnaire to help you properly file both state and federal returns and you may be asked questions about your most recent service, your status as an active duty, Guard, or Reserve member.
MilTax is offered to all service members on active duty, and you can still use it for a full year after you retire or separate from the military.
To use MilTax you must first create an account at Military OneSource, which is a DoD-funded website offering support for troops and their families. Once you have created an account you can access MilTax software or get personal support by phone. MilTax e-filing software is offered to the public each year from mid-January until October.
Other Free Tax Support For Military Members
The IRS Free File Program is another option; this public-private partnership between the federal government and private tax prep companies makes it possible for military members and/or those who have qualifying income below a cap to file their taxes for free. You can visit IRS.gov for more information but the two basic options are:
- Free “Guided” Tax Preparation: you can get free online tax prep and electronic filing using an IRS partner provider’s website. Typically those who have an annual gross income below $73,000 at press time are eligible to file free federal tax returns using this service.
- Free Fillable Forms: This option provides you with the digital equivalent to an IRS 1040 form. This option assumes you have a better grasp of your own tax issues and you will need to follow the IRS instructions on the form for filing. Like the guided tax prep option above, your gross annual income must be below a cap, which in 2022 was set at $73,000. These dollar amounts are subject to change year to year; it’s not safe to assume last year’s tax rules apply this year unless you get specific guidance. Always check the current year’s tax filing guidelines before filing for best results.
If You Choose To Pay A Tax Professional Instead
There are some things to keep in mind if you choose a tax prep professional instead of free assistance for your taxes while serving in the military. One of the biggest issues? Getting burned by fine print fees that aren’t mentioned in a transparent way earlier in the process.
You may be offered a special deal by a tax pro who wants to attract more military customers, but beware of hidden fees in the fine print for the act of e-filing your taxes–which is NOT the same thing as being charged for the PREPARATION of those taxes. You may find a fee structure associated with some tax professionals that includes an offer of free or discounted prep but a service fee charged for other activities.
Should You Get A Refund Anticipation Check?
If your tax preparer offers you a refund anticipation check you may be able to pay for your tax prep services with the proceeds but that does not mean you get your tax refund faster.
Some services may offer you a Tax Refund Advance Loan, but you could be stuck paying fees and/or interest on a loan that you might not even ask for knowing that IRS processing times for refunds is typically about 20 days or so. That may not be true in all cases, but for simpler tax filings some might choose to just wait out the IRS instead.
Shop Around For A Tax Professional
In the same way you would research any other professional service such as a counselor, primary care provider, lawyer, or real estate agent, you should also research your tax prep expert.
Whether you use an individual or go through a large company, you’ll want to learn what the online reputation of your chosen service provider is before you commit to having them work on your state and federal tax filings. It never hurts to ask questions of your tax professional including how much experience they have filing taxes on behalf of military members and their families.
About the author
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter/editor for Air Force Television News and the Pentagon Channel. His freelance work includes contract work for Motorola, VALoans.com, and Credit Karma. He is co-founder of Dim Art House in Springfield, Illinois, and spends his non-writing time as an abstract painter, independent publisher, and occasional filmmaker.