IRS seeks volunteers for VITA and TCE tax preparation help programs
There are many ways to give back to the community, from outright cash donations to volunteer work at nonprofit groups.
But have you ever considered helping others, including seniors and modest-income individuals, file their income-tax returns?
The Internal Revenue Service and various partner agencies will soon start ramping up their efforts to attract volunteers for two programs — VITA, or Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, and TCE, or Tax Counseling for the Elderly — for the coming tax season.
Both programs offer tax-preparation help, featuring electronic filing for added security and faster refunds, at no cost to the public.
Recruiting of volunteers is ongoing but shifts into high gear in October, with training commencing after Thanksgiving and conducted by the partner organizations rather than the IRS, said Jim Simpson, who oversees six tax-prep sites in Phoenix and Scottsdale.
Partner agencies include AARP and various churches, credit unions, large employers and nonprofit organizations, especially those with a human-services focus. Volunteers provide in-person tax help at thousands of libraries, community centers, colleges and other public venues across the nation.
The programs help people save money in tax-preparation fees and avoid the stress of completing returns by themselves. Many volunteers say they also find the work rewarding.
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“Some taxpayers are very appreciative and want to offer us tips, which we cannot accept,” said Gene Giesaking, a Phoenix-area return preparer who also teaches other volunteers tax basics so they can pass an IRS-certification test.
Some grateful taxpayers bring in cookies or bagels for the volunteers. “But most of the time, they just have kind words of appreciation,” he said.
Simpson also points to research that indicates people who volunteer, especially seniors, often enjoy better physical and mental health, though that’s true of volunteering in general, not just with tax-related work.
Part-time help needed
Retirees aren’t the only VITA/TCE volunteers, though they make up a large share of them. Giesaking retired in 2006 after 30 years as an educator. He and his wife Saundra love to travel and didn’t want to fill up their calendars with too many commitments.
They volunteer about eight hours a week on average during the January-April filing season. “We see and hear how the VITA program benefits so many taxpayers,” he said.
Many taxpayers are grateful not to have to pay for the service. “They really like when we explain how their taxes are determined and what they can do in planning their finances,” Giesaking added.
Adele Phelan, another retired volunteer return preparer in the Phoenix area, has expertise in explaining Medicare options. She agreed that most clients seem satisfied with the help they receive.
“Most of the clients we serve are very appreciative of the service and tend to come back from year to year,” she said.
The VITA/TCE volunteer section of the irs.gov website provides more information for prospective volunteers including a sign-up form.
Few taxpayers get free help
That said, the VITA and TCE programs don’t get as much public attention as they probably deserve.
Granted, 2.1 million income-tax returns were filed with the help of 57,000 volunteers at more than 9,000 VITA/TCE locations this past tax season. But that represents only about 1.3% of the roughly 160 million individual federal returns filed annually. Volunteers in the program also help with the completion and filing of state tax returns.
The VITA program is mostly geared to people with annual incomes below $58,000 along with those with English-language difficulties and disabled individuals. The TCE program caters to people ages 60 and up, with more focus on retirement-related topics such as Medicare and reporting pension income.
Tax expertise isn’t required to become a volunteer. Giesaking said he had prepared and filed his own returns for years but knew relatively little about taxes when he started as a volunteer. Since then, he has learned enough that he teaches others.
Similarly, Phelan, a Scottsdale resident, said she didn’t have a background in taxes before starting in the program. But while tax experience isn’t critical, she does feel it’s important for volunteers to enjoy working with the public.
Tax training provided
The late-year tax training is conducted over 24 hours through various options including self-study, video or Zoom presentations and in-person classrooms, typically conducted in evening sessions or on Saturdays.
“A test is required so that we can represent ourselves as IRS-certified,” said Simpson, a certified public accountant who runs a partner organization called Masters of Coin. The coursework prepares volunteers well for passing the test, he added.
The time commitment doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Phelan suggests that prospective volunteers plan on working four to eight hours a week during the return-filing season. Most assistance, from meeting with clients and preparation work through quality reviews and obtaining taxpayer signatures, takes about one hour per client, she said. All returns are reviewed for accuracy by a second volunteer.
The IRS indicated that it is pleased with the quality of work in the program, based on a recent, though small, sampling. The IRS said it reviewed 28 volunteer-prepared returns and found 27 were completed accurately. The agency called the volunteer efforts a “remarkable accomplishment” during a difficult tax season.
In addition to people who interview clients and prepare returns, the programs seek volunteers for other duties. These include reviewing returns for accuracy, greeting taxpayers, offering foreign-language interpreting, helping with computer troubleshooting and more.
The people who tend to have the most trouble with the tax instruction are those with minimal computer skills, Giesaking said. “We normally recruit them to be greeters at the various sites,” he said.
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