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The Gift of Tax Assistance

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, January 10, 2008

At tax time you can find lots of advice on how to boost your deductions or credits. People are focused mostly on getting as much money back from the government as possible.

But this tax season, perhaps you might give some thought to how you can give something back to others.

If you're not intimidated by federal or state tax forms, you could put that bravery to work by helping elderly or low-income people file their returns. Organizations that partner with the Internal Revenue Service Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program are looking for people to do basic tax returns for free.

Volunteers are also needed for the agency's Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program. With the average tax preparation fee about $200, such services are well appreciated by low-income families.

"That's a lot of groceries or gas to get to and from work," said Tom Meagher, campaign manager for the Fairfax CASH (Creating Assets, Savings and Hope) VITA program in Northern Virginia. "This is the most satisfying volunteer experience that you can have."

Meagher said the volunteer service helps people stay away from services and products they should avoid. One ill-advised product is a refund-anticipation loan, or RAL, offered by some commercial services. These are short-term, high-fee loans that are backed by a person's tax refund. Their appeal is that you get the money in a few days. But for years, consumer groups have complained that the loans are offered to the very people who can't afford to waste money on the fees. Volunteer services such as VITA don't market the loans.

Refunds filed through the volunteer services can come fast anyway. "We are e-filing and can direct deposit for a 10- to 11-day average refund deposit," Meagher said.

Volunteers are especially trained to help qualified low-income families take advantage of the earned-income tax credit (EITC). A tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction of taxes owed. The EITC was created in 1975 as a way for working taxpayers with low incomes to shelter some of their earnings.

The training for the volunteer program is free and does not require an overwhelming commitment. Applicants have to pass a certification test, which can be taken in a classroom or online through the IRS. To view the online test, go to http://www.irs.gov. In the search field, type "link and learn." You make your way through the online lessons at your own pace and learn from case studies and interview simulations. You get basic training in how to prepare a simple tax return for individuals, including filling out Forms 1040, 1040EZ and 1040A.

In addition to the certification test, each volunteer organization may have additional training requirements. Across the country, organizations offer a choice of online, self-study or hands-on training. Spanish-speaking volunteers are greatly needed. Beginner tax preparers are strongly urged to take basic classroom training.

If you are interested in volunteering at a VITA near you, call 800-829-1040.

The TCE program provides free tax help to people age 60 and older. The AARP also provides free tax preparation to low- and middle-income taxpayers with special attention to those age 60 and older. Electronic filing and online counseling are also offered by the program. To locate the nearest AARP Tax-Aide site, call 888-227-7669 or go to http://www.aarp.org/money/taxaide for information about volunteering.

The military also has a volunteer tax-assistance program. The Armed Forces Tax Council helps military personnel prepare and file their returns.

The organizations will need volunteers trained fast. Meagher said that typically there is a rush of people looking for help at the beginning of February. Things then slow down a bit but pick up again as the April filing date approaches.

Fairfax CASH has 15 sites and needs at least 200 volunteers. As is the case with other organizations, volunteers aren't left on their own, Meagher said.

"We know people are scared to sit down by themselves and prepare tax returns, so that's why we created Team 1040," he said. "We structure all our sites to work as a team. We have someone to look over their work. People are not just sitting down and doing someone's taxes in someone's kitchen. You have a lot of support as a volunteer."

If you aren't interested in preparing taxes, that's okay. There's plenty else you can do. The organizations also need greeters and screeners. The latter job entails determining whether people qualify for free tax preparation. VITA is available to low- to moderate-income individuals generally with adjusted gross incomes of $40,000 and under.

"If you can do your own taxes, you can serve in the campaign," Meagher said. "Just doing 10 returns in this filing season, that would be a wonderful contribution."

¿ On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" and online athttp://www.npr.org.She also has a new personal finance call-in show that airs Sundays on XM Satellite Radio, Channel 169 "The Power," from 8 to 10 p.m.

¿ By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

¿ By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

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