When you file a tax return, you usually have a choice to make: whether to itemize deductions or take the standard deduction. You should compare both methods and use the one that gives you the greater tax benefit.

The IRS offers these six facts to help you choose.

1. Figure your itemized deductions. Add up the cost of items you paid for during the year that you might be able to deduct. Expenses could include home mortgage interest, state income taxes or sales taxes (but not both), real estate and personal property taxes, and gifts to charities. They may also include large casualty or theft losses or large medical and dental expenses that insurance did not cover. Unreimbursed employee business expenses may also be deductible.

2. Know your standard deduction. If you do not itemize, your basic standard deduction amount depends on your filing status. For 2012, the basic amounts are:

- Single = $5,950

- Married Filing Jointly = $11,900

- Head of Household = $8,700

- Married Filing Separately = $5,950

- Qualifying Widow(er) = $11,900

3. Apply other rules in some cases. Your standard deduction is higher if you are 65 or older or blind. Other rules apply if someone else can claim you as a dependent on his or her tax return. To figure your standard deduction in these cases, use the worksheet in the instructions for Form 1040, U.S. Individual Income Tax Return.

4. Check for the exceptions. Some people do not qualify for the standard deduction and should itemize. This includes married people who file a separate return and their spouse itemizes deductions. See the Form 1040 instructions for the rules about who may not claim a standard deduction.

5. Choose the best method. Compare your itemized and standard deduction amounts. You should file using the method with the larger amount.

6. File the right forms. To itemize your deductions, use Form 1040, and Schedule A, Itemized Deductions. You can take the standard deduction on Forms 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ.

For more information about allowable deductions, see Publication 17, Your Federal Income Tax, and the instructions for Schedule A. Tax forms and publications are available on the IRS website at IRS.gov You may also call 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676) to order them by mail.

Important Facts about Mortgage Debt Forgiveness

If your lender cancelled or forgave your mortgage debt, you generally have to pay tax on that amount. But there are exceptions to this rule for some homeowners who had mortgage debt forgiven in 2012.

Here are 10 key facts from the IRS about mortgage debt forgiveness:

1. Cancelled debt normally results in taxable income. However, you may be able to exclude the cancelled debt from your income if the debt was a mortgage on your main home.

2. To qualify, you must have used the debt to buy, build or substantially improve your principal residence. The residence must also secure the mortgage.

3. The maximum qualified debt that you can exclude under this exception is $2 million. The limit is $1 million for a married person who files a separate tax return.

4. You may be able to exclude from income the amount of mortgage debt reduced through mortgage restructuring. You may also be able to exclude mortgage debt cancelled in a foreclosure.

5. You may also qualify for the exclusion on a refinanced mortgage. This applies only if you used proceeds from the refinancing to buy, build or substantially improve your main home. The exclusion is limited to the amount of the old mortgage principal just before the refinancing.

6. Proceeds of refinanced mortgage debt used for other purposes do not qualify for the exclusion. For example, debt used to pay off credit card debt does not qualify.

7. If you qualify, report the excluded debt on Form 982, Reduction of Tax Attributes Due to Discharge of Indebtedness. Submit the completed form with your federal income tax return.

8. Other types of cancelled debt do not qualify for this special exclusion. This includes debt cancelled on second homes, rental and business property, credit cards or car loans. In some cases, other tax relief provisions may apply, such as debts discharged in certain bankruptcy proceedings. Form 982 provides more details about these provisions.

9. If your lender reduced or cancelled at least $600 of your mortgage debt, they normally send you a statement in January of the next year. Form 1099-C, Cancellation of Debt, shows the amount of cancelled debt and the fair market value of any foreclosed property.

10. Check your Form 1099-C for the cancelled debt amount shown in Box 2, and the value of your home shown in Box 7. Notify the lender immediately of any incorrect information so they can correct the form.

Use the Interactive Tax Assistant tool on IRS.gov to check if your cancelled debt is taxable. Also, see Publication 4681, Canceled Debts, Foreclosures, Repossessions and Abandonments. IRS forms and publications are available online at IRS.gov or by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

Free Tax Help for Military Personnel and Their Families

Many members of the military are able to get their tax returns prepared for free on or off most military bases including overseas locations. The U.S. Armed Forces participates in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program sponsored by the IRS. VITA provides free tax advice, tax preparation, tax return filing and other tax help to military members and their families.

Here are four things you need to know about free military tax assistance:

1. Armed Forces Tax Council. The Armed Forces Tax Council oversees the military tax programs offered worldwide. AFTC partners with the IRS to conduct outreach to military personnel and their families. This includes the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

2. Volunteer tax sites. Military-based VITA sites staffed with IRS-trained volunteers provide free tax help and tax return preparation. Volunteers receive training on military tax issues, such as combat zone tax benefits, filing extensions and special benefits that apply to the Earned Income Tax Credit.

3. What to bring. To receive free tax assistance, bring the following records to your military VITA site:

Valid photo identification

Social Security cards for you, your spouse and dependents, or a Social Security number verification letter issued by the Social Security Administration

Birth dates for you, your spouse and dependents

Wage and earning statement(s), such as Forms W-2, W-2G, and 1099-R

Interest and dividend statements (Forms 1099)

A copy of last year's federal and state tax returns, if available

Checkbook for routing and account numbers for direct deposit of your tax refund

Total amount paid for day care and day care provider's identifying number. This is usually an Employer Identification Number or Social Security number.

Other relevant information about income and expenses

4. Joint returns. If you are married filing a joint return and wish to file electronically, both you and your spouse should be present to sign the required forms. If both cannot be present, you usually must bring a valid power of attorney form along with you. You may use IRS Form 2848, Power of Attorney and Declaration of Representative for this purpose.

There is a special exception to this rule if your spouse is in a combat zone. The exception allows a spouse to prepare and e-file a joint return with a written statement stating the other spouse is in a combat zone and unable to sign.

IRS Publication 3, Armed Forces' Tax Guide, has more helpful information for members of the military. You can download free publications from the IRS.gov website or order them by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

Tax Rules on Early Withdrawals from Retirement Plans

Taking money out early from your retirement plan can cost you an extra 10 percent in taxes. Here are five things you should know about early withdrawals from retirement plans.

1. An early withdrawal normally means taking money from your plan, such as a 401(k), before you reach age 59½.

2. You must report the amount you withdrew from your retirement plan to the IRS. You may have to pay an additional 10 percent tax on your withdrawal.

3. The additional 10 percent tax normally does not apply to nontaxable withdrawals. Nontaxable withdrawals include withdrawals of your cost in participating in the plan. Your cost includes contributions that you paid tax on before you put them into the plan.

4. If you transfer a withdrawal from one qualified retirement plan to another within 60 days, the transfer is a rollover. Rollovers are not subject to income tax. The added 10 percent tax also does not apply to a rollover.

5. There are several other exceptions to the additional 10 percent tax. These include withdrawals if you have certain medical expenses or if you are disabled. Some of the exceptions for retirement plans are different from the rules for IRAs.

For more information on early distributions from retirement plans, see IRS Publication 575, Pension and Annuity Income. Also, see IRS Publication 590, Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs). Both publications are available at IRS.gov or by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).