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Consumer Watch: Be diligent about tracking state benefits

Oct. 31, 2013 - 07:24PM   |  
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After some New York homeowners who are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were wrongfully denied state property tax exemptions, the state attorney general sent letters to all the county property tax officials clarifying that the law does, in fact, apply to those veterans.

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said county officials have inconsistently interpreted New York’s Real Property Tax Law, and some veterans have been unclear about their eligibility for the 15 percent reduction of residential real estate property taxes for those who served during defined “periods of war.”

Veterans who served in a combat zone are entitled to an additional 10 percent reduction. Because the law doesn’t specifically mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as “periods of war,” some county officials didn’t consider these veterans eligible.

The law “defines the period of war known as the ‘Persian Gulf conflict’ as having commenced on August 2, 1990, and continued through to present day,” Schneiderman wrote in his letter to county officials. Other periods of war defined include those back to the Spanish-American War. If a veteran is deceased but has a surviving spouse who has not remarried, the spouse is eligible for the exemption.

Information was not available at press time about whether those who have been denied benefits would get refunds. Those with questions can call Schneiderman’s office at 800-771-7755.

Many states have passed laws that provide some extra benefits to veterans of America’s latest wars. Benefits range from tax breaks to tuition waivers at colleges in some states. In many cases, you might check a box identifying you as veteran that automatically triggers the benefit. But what if you qualify later and don’t realize it? Or you don’t know to apply for a benefit?

Even if you laboriously pore over your state’s laws, chances are you wouldn’t come up with everything, said Verenda Smith, deputy director of the Federation of Tax Administrators, which provides services to state tax authorities and administrators. Policy changes are made, court decisions change interpretations, and officials such as the New York attorney general make changes and clarifications.

When there’s a benefit, there must be a way to apply for it, whether it’s checking a box on an application or filling out a form. That might be a tax form.

“I think in most cases, people are getting the benefits,” Smith said, but added, “Nobody can look out for you as well as you can.”

Some tips for searching:

■ Military legal assistance offices may have some information on benefits, such as state tax benefits.

■ Check your state’s website for benefits available to troops and veterans. Or do an Internet search with your state’s name, and “veterans” and “benefits.” Make sure the site you’re looking at is your state’s official site, which will end with the .gov domain name.

■ People in your state are the best sources of information, Smith said. Start with the state’s veterans affairs division. For example, the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs has information on its state website about applying for grants, applying for veteran state income tax credits and obtaining a property tax exemption. A state’s tax division should be your next stop.

We don’t know what we don’t know. It can never hurt to explore official information sources.

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