Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)

Many retirees – and non-retirees – look for a meaningful way to give of their spare time in service to others.  My husband, who retired eight years before I did, found the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program a few years ago.  VITA is an IRS-sponsored program, funded (at least in Utah) through the Community Action Program.  Its purpose is to provide income tax preparation, free of charge, to low income individuals and couples.  I joined “Team VITA” this past tax season.

“Now let me get this straight,” you may ask. “You do other peoples taxes for free?  And you like it?”

The answers are yes, and surprisingly, yes. 

Our clients are low income families, many headed by single mothers.  Our clients include the disabled.  And our clients include fellow retirees. 

It is humbling to see how these families get by on what appears to me to be so little income.  It is rewarding to see the gratitude on the face of a single mother when I tell her that her refund, including the Earned Income Credit and the Child Tax Credit, is far more than the amount withheld from her paychecks.  And it is encouraging to see retirees with pensions – since I’ll never see pension income. 

To volunteer, you need to pass two tests on the tax code and learn the TaxWise software used at VITA sites.  The program offered classes and/or self-study.  Of course, as most of you have already experienced, taking a class or two doesn't make you an expert in anything.  This is especially true of the US Tax Code, which is anything but simple.  I learned far more actually doing the tax preparation – mistakes and all – than I did in the classes. 

Yes, I made mistakes.  Lots of them.  Some, if uncorrected, could have cost the taxpayers hundreds of dollars in unclaimed refunds.  As one of the new kids at our site, I was grateful for the experienced volunteers’ quality review of my work – and for their subsequent explanation to me of what I had done wrong.  At VITA sites, every return is quality reviewed by another preparer – to catch little mistakes like a transposed employer ID or direct deposit account numbers, and to catch bigger mistakes like checking the wrong radio button on the EIC worksheet and costing the taxpayer their Earned Income Credit.

So to those taxpayers on whose returns I made errors, I thank you.  I will be a better preparer for it.

Was VITA worth my time?  Absolutely.  I’ll do it again next tax season.  If you’re interested in volunteering, search the web for VITA in your city or state, as volunteers are coordinated at the local level rather than at the federal level.

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