Taxes: Free Help for Veterans

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TAMARA WARD: Hello, and welcome to our program. The Education and Communication Department from IRS and National Disability Institute have partnered to assist our veterans, veterans´ family members, and veterans with disabilities. We´re here to discuss some of the principal elements and accomplishments of that partnership. With us today are Katie Metz and Jamie Robinson from National Disability Institute. Katie Metz is the manager of Financial Empowerment & Inclusion for National Disability Institute. She´s also a certified VITA tax preparer and currently manager of the veteran component of NDI´s MyFreeTaxes Program. Welcome, Katie. Jamie Robinson is the manager of the Financial Empowerment & Workforce for National Disability Institute and currently project manager of the MyFreeTaxes Program. Welcome, Jamie. Before we begin, we should point out that our participation in this webinar does not constitute an endorsement of any specific software provider. Rather, our guests are here to help us increase our awareness and understanding of beneficial tax provisions for veterans and the free tax services that are available to them. Stakeholder Partnership, Education and Communications, or IRS SPEC, is the outreach and education function of Internal Revenue Service´s Wage & Investment Division. SPEC´s business model is leveraged through client-based organizations. The model integrates tax education and free tax preparation with other strategies promoted by the partners to increase income, build savings, and gain and sustain assets for targeted SPEC customers that include taxpayers with low to moderate income -- less than $52,000 a year -- which would include any veteran, Americans over 60 years of age, people with limited English proficiency, Native Americans, and people with disabilities, including disabled veterans. Our veterans need our help more than ever. Looking at some of the statistics, the Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 22.5 million veterans in the United States and more than 37 million veterans, their dependents, or survivors are eligible for veterans´ benefits. According to the Center for American Progress, 1.5 million veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty. Katie, can you tell us a little bit about the partnership between NDI and the IRS and some of the efforts that are benefiting veterans?

KATIE METZ: Sure. According to our partners in SPEC, 16 V.A. medical centers provided free tax preparation to approximately 2,500 veterans in 2013. Another 18 V.A. medical centers provided outreach on tax credits and deductions, as well as listing locations close by that would provide free tax preparation to veterans in need. Earlier this year, IRS SPEC and NDI met with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, and we spoke about providing free tax preparation services at all of the V.A. facilities. We´re working with the Veterans Justice Outreach national coordinator, and discussions are currently under way to provide free tax-prep services in all of the V.A. hospitals and select patient-outreach facilities for the upcoming tax-filing season.

TAMARA WARD: So, is this a formal partnership between NDI, IRS, and the Veterans Affairs?

KATIE METZ: Yes. We are currently working on a memorandum of understanding between IRS SPEC, National Disability Institute, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. We really want to work to ensure that all veterans are able to access free tax-preparation services. We know that National Disability Institute has a wonderful synergy with the veteran population. When it comes to National Disability Institute, we really work to provide Americans with disabilities economic empowerment, and we know that many, many veterans have service-connected disabilities or have returned from conflicts with disabilities. So, we share that common mission to come together and really work towards providing economic empowerment, whether it´s for just individuals with disabilities, family members, or veterans, as well. Each year, millions do not claim credits, missing out on millions of dollars they´ve earned. in 2011, over 27 million eligible families and individuals claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit, the EITC, worth $59.7 billion.

TAMARA WARD: So, Jamie, can you tell us a little bit more about these credits?

JAMIE ROBINSON: Sure. The EITC and Child Tax Credit expansions and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 made more workers eligible for larger refunds, and they remain in effect for workers in 2012. Together, these credits lifted over nine million people and working families above the poverty line in 2010. About one in four current or former armed-forces families with children or 1.5 million military families, receive either the Earned Income Tax Credit or the low-income component of the Child Tax Credit, two tax credits for low- and moderate-income working families, according to analysis of the census and IRS data. In about 280,000 of these families, a parent is currently serving in the Armed Forces. In the rest, a parent is a veteran. The 1.5 million families contain about 3 million children under age 18 and received, on average, about $1,000 per household from the low-income portion of the Child Tax Credit in 2011, and $2,650 from the EITC. Studies have found that children whose families receive more income support from the EITC tend to do better in school and are more likely to attend college and to earn more as adults.

TAMARA WARD: Well, thank you for that information. Katie, tell me about Stand Downs. I´m familiar with it, but our audience needs to know the value of those programs.

KATIE METZ: Absolutely. Stand Downs are an initiative of the Department of Veteran Affairs. It´s one of the events that they do to really reach out and help homeless veterans. They´re usually a one- to three-day event. They will work on providing food, clothing, resources, counseling on V.A. benefits, Social Security benefits. They´ll work on providing employment job fairs and, at times, we´ve even had our partners from IRS there doing tax preparation.

TAMARA WARD: So, tell our audience about the greater need to develop financial strategies to help veterans and their families.

KATIE METZ: Absolutely. We certainly see there´s a need. Veteran statistics underscore the need for financial-capability strategies and tools in the veteran community. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 22.5 million veterans in the United States and more than 37 million veterans, dependents, or survivors are eligible for veteran benefits. According to the Center for American Progress, United States Census Bureau reports that 1.5 million veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty. A veteran lives in one in five households that are benefiting from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides heating and cooling assistance. According to the U.S. census in 2007, of the 23.6 million military veterans in the United States, 6 million had disabilities. Again, you can see that synergy that is coming between National Disability Institute and the Department of Veteran Affairs. In addition, an increasing number of disabled veterans returned from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, as well as traumatic brain injury, TBIs, and other mental and physical disabilities that resulted from their tours of duty.

TAMARA WARD: Let´s take a few minutes to talk about some of the free tax services that can help veterans, including VITA, TCE, and Free File. The IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, VITA, and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly, TCE, programs offer free tax help for taxpayers who qualify. The VITA program generally offers free tax help to people who make $52,000 a year or less and need assistance in preparing their own tax returns. IRS-certified volunteers provide free basic income-tax-return preparation with electronic filing to qualified individuals in local communities. They can inform taxpayers about special tax credits for which they may qualify, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit that Katie talked about earlier, Child Tax Credit, and credit for the elderly or the disabled. VITA sites are generally located at community and neighborhood centers such as libraries, schools, shopping malls, or other convenient locations. The TCE program offers free tax help for all with priority assistance to people who are 60 years of age or older. The providers specialize in answering questions about pensions and retirement issues that are unique to seniors. IRS-certified volunteers who provide tax counseling are often retired individuals associated with non-profit organizations that receive grants from the IRS.

Interested in becoming a VITA or TCE volunteer? Visit the IRS volunteer page on IRS.gov to find out how you can learn to prepare taxes and make a difference at the same time. You´ll receive training to provide free tax help for low- to moderate-income families who need assistance preparing their tax return. Nearly 92,000 people said "yes" to making a difference during the 2013 filing season, and they prepared over 3.3 million returns at thousands of tax sites nationwide. For more details, submit your contact information using the VITA/TCE Volunteer Sign Up form 14310. Also include the city and state where you want to become a volunteer. Your information will be forwarded to the sponsoring organizations in your area for further contact. Submit your inquiry now to TaxVolunteer@IRS.gov and become a VITA or TCE volunteer. It´s a rewarding way to give back to your community. There are thousands of VITA sites located across the country. You may find a site near you between January and April using the VITA locator tool on IRS.gov or by phone or e-mail. In addition to traditional face-to-face tax preparation, the IRS is offering a self-assistance service at many VITA and TCE locations. If individuals have a simple tax return and need a little bit of help or do not have access to a computer, they can visit one of the participating tax-preparation sites and an IRS-certified volunteer will guide them through the process.

Free File is a free service that offers free federal tax preparation and e-file options for all taxpayers. Free File is made possible through a public/private partnership between the IRS and commercial tax-software companies. Since 2002, over 30 million taxpayers have taken advantage of this free service, saving over $1 billion in tax-preparation fees in the process. All taxpayers have a Free File option. The traditional, interview-based Free File option is available to 70% of America's taxpayers. For 2014, that means if you have an adjusted gross income of $58,000 a year or less, you qualify for this service. Simply go to the Free File link on IRS.gov and click on "Select a Free File Company." In addition, all taxpayers may use Free File fillable forms at no additional cost. This is a forms-based program. Once you calculate your line-by-line entries, just complete your return and e-file. It´s just that easy. Let me add that if you´re the type of person who is interested in free online tax-preparation services without going to a VITA site, you have several choices to prepare taxes for free from home, work, or anywhere there´s access to the Internet. Software providers make their products available through public/private partnerships with the IRS. Free federal tax preparation and e-file options are available for all taxpayers. However, each company may set its own limits and income thresholds. Review the choices at freefile.IRS.gov. Katie, the IRS cannot endorse any specific software or software provider, but can you tell us about the services or the programs that you use?

KATIE METZ: Sure. It´s my pleasure. We use a software option known as MyFreeTaxes, which is separate from the offerings on Free File. If you earn $58,000 or less, you can file your federal and state taxes online for free at myfreetaxes.com. Since 2009, the MyFreeTaxes Partnership has offered free tax preparation and filing to eligible taxpayers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia in person through VITA sites and at self-preparation sites where Tax Coaches help taxpayers file their own taxes. The MyFreeTaxes Partnership has helped millions of low- to moderate-income individuals and their families increase their financial stability by expanding access to in-person and online free tax-preparation services. Taxpayers save money on preparer fees and learn about their eligibility for certain tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, the EITC, we spoke about earlier, providing a boost to workers, their families, and the communities where they live.

TAMARA WARD: So, I heard that NDI has been doing this since 2009. Can you give us some background information about the efforts and how it supports NDI´s mission?

KATIE METZ: Absolutely. So, since 2009, we´ve been working with the MyFreeTaxes Partnership. However, back in 2005, National Disability Institute partnered with IRS SPEC to bring the Real Economic Impact Tour in pilot cities, approximately 11 cities across the country. We really worked to infuse disability inclusiveness into tax coalitions throughout the VITA communities around the country. Over the years, that small pilot of 11 cities grew to a national movement of 900 partners in over 100 cities across the country. As we grew and progressed, we knew that we needed to offer additional services, and we needed to keep up with the demand, so we transferred into the Real Economic Impact Network. Through this network, we provide training, tools, resources, webinars, disability-inclusiveness tips, and we go forward, and we work to really ensure that persons with disabilities are wrapped into VITA tax coalitions, self tax-preparation sites.

TAMARA WARD: So, tell me, how will this program reach out to veterans this year?

KATIE METZ: We at NDI plan to use the MyFreeTaxes Program to really do a concentrated effort in the veteran community in a couple different ways. We plan on using ERLs, playbooks, training materials, resources, webinars, work group meetings to really embrace the veteran community and show them ways that they can integrate MyFreeTaxes into the work that they´re already doing. Sometimes that might be through financial education, employment, or asset-development programs that they´re already integrating into their community. We specifically will work with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, again, I mentioned earlier, our MOU. We will work on that collaboration with IRS SPEC, the Veterans Affairs, and specifically within Veteran Affairs, the Veteran Justice Outreach Program. NDI will provide information regarding MyFreeTaxes in the V.A. healthcare system of over 152 hospitals, 800 community-based outpatient clinics, and 126 nursing-home care units. V.A.´s appointed liaison, the National VJO coordinator and staff will have access to and participate in the MyFreeTaxes model with specified support from NDI. Another model that we´ll be using is what we call our NDI Tax Coach employee model. For four to six months out of the tax season, NDI will work to recruit and pay a certified IRS VITA Tax Coach to really learn and work with individuals on preparing their own taxes. It´s really about self-empowerment and allowing an individual how to prepare their own taxes so that, in the future, they´ll be able to do it on their own. We collaborate with local United Way and Goodwill partners, VITA tax coalitions, other community-based partners to really ensure that we´re raising awareness when it comes to veterans´ benefits and different options for MyFreeTaxes and other software programs out there.

TAMARA WARD: That´s a wealth of information. Jamie, can you tell us about Workforce Systems and how veterans are serviced within those systems?

JAMIE ROBINSON: Sure, Tamara. Well over 20 million individuals tap into the key federal programs and resources that the Workforce Development System offers to help people find jobs and identify training programs. As part of the Workforce Development System, American Job Centers were established nationwide or, as we call them, AJCs. And they were established to offer a universal access point to an array of employment services to job seekers, workers, employers, all at a single location. And under that system, co-located partners exist -- an array of them -- and one of those partners serves veterans, and they are called the Veterans Employment and Training Services, or V.E.T.S. The V.E.T.S. administered, in 2009, a ruling that gave veterans and their spouses a priority of service, which meant that they had a priority to training programs that gave them access to high-growth, high-wage jobs and post-secondary education, additional programs that would help to advance their career pathways. There are two key positions that exist in the American Job Centers. One is the LVER or L-V-E-R, and that´s the Local Veterans Employment Services, and the other is a DVOP -- Disabled Veterans Outreach Program. And these folks are real important because they actually do outreach in the veterans´ community. They work to inform and raise awareness on the employment services and those trainings that are available, and they´re key people in the veterans´ portion of the Workforce System. These two staff members traditionally stayed within their realm of veterans for some time. But over the past 10 years, we´ve seen them partner more and more with other initiatives that the Department of Labor has implemented that involve individuals with disabilities and promoting more opportunities for customers with disabilities through the Workforce System. And so those initiatives have kind of come together and jointly outreached to the veterans´ community, and as a result of that collaboration, I think that the tax world and the tax coalitions will find that they´re much more apt to partner. Katie and I had an opportunity to go out and visit Workforce Centers across the nation last year, and we sat down with the veterans´ reps -- the LVERs and the DVOPs, and we talked to them about MyFreeTaxes and free tax-prep options and EITC. And they saw a natural fit, and they really wanted to move forward. "What do we do next?" and, "How do we go out to increase awareness in the veterans´ community?" And so that´s why we´re moving forward with the initiatives that we have.

TAMARA WARD: The Internal Revenue Service is committed to providing assistance to veterans and veterans with disabilities. We work with community and government partners to provide timely federal tax-related information to veterans about tax credits and benefits, free tax preparation, and asset-building opportunities that are available to them. Check out IRS.gov for more information. Katie, tell me about the Veterans Justice Outreach.

KATIE METZ: Yes. I mentioned earlier we´re working with the Veterans Justice Outreach, part of the Veteran Affairs System. Research shows that veterans have a significant, and too often unmet, need for legal services. Veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless rank legal needs regarding eviction or foreclosure proceedings, child-support issues, outstanding warrants, or fines as some of their highest unmet needs. The website www.statesidelegal.org has legal information on various topics of interest to veterans and a search engine that allows veterans to find free legal help in their geographic area. We truly look forward to working with the Veteran Justice Outreach Program to bring free tax prep.

TAMARA WARD: So, Jamie, tell me about the V.O.W. to Hire Heroes Act.

JAMIE ROBINSON: Well, there´s expanded tax credit for hiring unemployed veterans under the V.O.W. to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. The Work Opportunity Credit has been expanded to provide employers with new incentives to hire certain unemployed veterans. On November 21, 2011, the President signed into law the V.O.W. to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. This new law provides an expanded Work Opportunity Tax Credit to businesses that hire eligible unemployed veterans and, for the first time, also makes part of the credit available to tax-exempt organizations. Businesses claim the credit as part of the general business credit, and tax-exempt organizations claim it against their payroll-tax liability. For more information on claiming this credit, go to the website. If you´re a veteran and have a disability per the V.A., you may qualify for internships or you could be hired noncompetitively for any federal position for which you qualify. The IRS Veterans Employment Program Office is designed to provide quality training and work experience to wounded warriors and veterans by offering various nonpaid internship opportunities within the IRS, as well as help veterans who qualify for one or more of the three special hiring authorities to become gainfully employed within the IRS.

TAMARA WARD: Thanks, Jamie, for sharing that information about the Act. Well, we´ve covered a lot of ground today, and I´d like to thank both of our guests, Katie Metz and Jamie Robinson from National Disability Institute, for helping us increase our awareness and understanding of beneficial tax provisions for our veterans. With that, we´ll say goodbye. Until next time.