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Petty Officer 2nd Class Alex Laskowski, 24, looks over his prepared tax form Wednesday. It was completed by Petty Officer 1st Class Lisette Walker, a volunteer and the organizer of the VITA Tax Center at Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Alex Laskowski, 24, looks over his prepared tax form Wednesday. It was completed by Petty Officer 1st Class Lisette Walker, a volunteer and the organizer of the VITA Tax Center at Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy. (Sandra Jontz/S&S)

Users beware, warns Daniel Wise.

Thanks to a mistake that Wise says was made by a tax volunteer at a military base in Hanau, Germany, he owes the Internal Revenue Service $5,500. And because the volunteer can’t be held liable for the tax return, Wise is responsible for paying the bill alone.

A random IRS examination uncovered the error in his 2006 returns, and recalculations mean that Wise now owes not just the principle unpaid taxes, he said, but interest, fees and penalties, although he is seeking to have the IRS waive the additional costs.

"It is a wonderful thing that the U.S. government offers soldiers and civilians free things such as legal support and tax assistance, but sometimes it can actually cost you," said Wise, who had been taking advantage of the free service since 1999.

The volunteer tax preparer in Hanau neglected to include his wife’s foreign income information on what could be a complicated filing — a detail that also escaped his review.

Now, Wise thinks the tax preparers should shoulder some of the blame.

"It’s a service offered to you," said Wise, now a civilian supply technician in Bamberg, Germany. "If someone is doing the service, they should be held responsible for any mistakes that are made."

But military tax centers and their volunteers are neither insured, nor responsible, for mistakes made to clients’ returns, said Petty Officer 1st Class Lisette Walker, a volunteer and the organizer of the VITA Tax Center at Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy. The taxpayer is ultimately responsible for the accuracy of filings, she said.

Tax center volunteers go through four days of training by an IRS representative and then must complete and pass an online tax preparation course before they are cleared to volunteer their services, Walker said.

But clients with complicated or sophisticated returns usually are advised to file their taxes through a professional, she said.

"We are volunteers. There is a limit as to what we can do," Walker said.

"The program was set up to help junior sailors with simple tax returns, and I think people forget the initial reason for the program," she said. "If there are mistakes, we don’t intend for that to happen. People have to remember that the people preparing [the returns] are not IRS professionals."

The onus always remains with the taxpayer — who should carefully review their own returns, Walker advised. They should make sure names and Social Security numbers are accurate, in addition to information like income and deductions are accurate.

Professional tax preparing services, such as the H&R Block offices set up near many military bases in Europe, guarantee their work.

"If you owe penalties or interest charges due to an H&R Block error, H&R Block will pay those penalties and interest on federal, state and local returns," according to the company’s Web site.


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