VITA program invests 8,000 volunteer hours to leverage more than $8 million in tax credits and refunds for low-income taxpayers.
You may be aware of VITA, the free tax preparation program. It happens in most local communities throughout the winter months as Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites offer free, in-depth tax preparation services to people who make less than $56,000 per year.
Volunteers help taxpayers navigate the complicated process of filing their taxes and guarantee their maximum refund and credit. “Our average client in the program makes $22,000 per year and receives $2,200 in refunds. That is 10% of their annual income,” said Evelyn Friedman, Executive Director of Greater Lawrence Community Action Council (GLCAC). “Knowing that they can come here for free tax services and be helped by IRS trained volunteers gives them the reassurance that they will get what they need,” adds Heather Johnston, Director of Donor Relations for Beverly Bootstraps. In fact, last season more than 250 volunteers worked over 8,000 hours at VITA sites across Massachusetts to help filers claim over $8 million in tax credits and refunds.
United Way mobilizes funding to support eight VITA sites in Massachusetts and New Hampshire because while they leverage millions for low-income working families, nonprofits often lack resources to cover the incremental costs of running the program.
“We are advocates for these folks.”
One reason VITA works is the commitment of volunteers who staff the program. We sat down with two long time VITA volunteers from United Way’s partner agencies for a first-hand perspective. Tom Hartwell is a retired CPA with a long career in finance at BNY Mellon. He has been a VITA volunteer at GLCAC for 5 years. David Burns has been a VITA volunteer at CONNECT since 2015. He brings his years of experience in the U.S. Air Force and corporate and IT industry jobs to the program.
“Honestly over the past 6 years it’s really opened my eyes, you encounter so many things,” David told us. “I think we have more of an advocate mindset to help people and we are very focused on making sure they’re aware of things like the Circuit Breaker Credit in Massachusetts, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit. People aren’t aware of a lot of these programs.” Last year, Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) refunds totaled more than $2.4 million in Massachusetts. But still, one in five eligible individuals is not aware of its existence. That’s why VITA is so essential.
“At the end of the day, people getting their returns done at a VITA site can be assured that they’re getting their full return and their taxes will be prepared correctly. I don’t know if that is true for every fee-based service out there,” Tom said. He shares just how surprised many families are when they receive their return. He remembers one single mother in particular who, upon learning about her return, became emotional. Her car, which she relied on to get to work and transport her children around town, was near the end of its life. Her return was enough to buy a more reliable car. “When you see that happen, you really feel good about volunteering. You’re helping people in their everyday lives.”
Not all refunds play out this way. David related the story of another woman who visited after filing with a fee-based service. Even though her return was relatively straightforward, she paid $610 out of her $1,000 return to have her taxes prepared and filed. She went to a fee-based service because she couldn’t get an appointment at a VITA site. There are more people eligible to use the service than there is capacity to serve, Tom shared. Many VITA sites have even closed in recent years due to a lack of funding. To keep these vital programs going, they need volunteers and support.
If you are interested in volunteering, there are a few things you need to know.
- Anyone can volunteer, you don’t have to be a tax preparation expert. You don’t need a background in finance, accounting or taxes. For many people, VITA is their first experience with tax preparation, shares David. “The IRS has a pretty robust training program online. It’s self-paced, which is really nice and you can do it on your own. The Boston Tax Help Coalition also has some training classes.”
- Don’t be afraid of making a mistake. There are multiple checks in place to make sure everything runs correctly: the basic preparers have their work checked by an advanced preparer whose work is also audited by the IRS. Tom shared that there are other people in the room who can answer questions as you go. Overall, new volunteers are usually surprised at just how easy it is.
- The personal reward is well worth the time of service. Many sites serve the same families year after year. “They come in and they only want to work with you because you make them feel safe and they trust you,” said David. “That’s one of the nicest feelings – when you start to recognize the people and you know they’re coming back.” “That’s the whole point of doing this, it’s something to give back to the community,” adds Tom.
- It is never too early to think about becoming a VITA volunteer. Because of the lengthy training, many organizations begin to recruit volunteers in the summer for the next tax year. So consider now if you might like to volunteer next tax season.
For those interested in having their taxes completed, here’s how filing with VITA works:
- Schedule an appointment
Very few sites offer walk-in service, so it is best to start by calling 2-1-1 to find the VITA sites closest to you. Call ahead to inquire about eligibility and to make an appointment.
- Be prepared to complete an intake form
You will be asked to complete a standard IRS form to gather the necessary information. Your site will probably also provide you with a list of the documents you will be required to gather and present prior to preparation
- Sit with a VITA Volunteer
At most sites, you will sit down with the preparer for 30-40 minutes. The volunteer will walk you through the process, gathering any outstanding information and answering any further questions. Some sites offer drop-off assistance, but this is rare. Once this is complete, you will wait while your filer prepares the return.
- Review the advanced review
Once they’re finished, an advanced preparer will review it. Then, the advanced preparer will call you back to review your refund and answer any more questions you may have.
Your site will likely also help you print your return.
United Way’s community partners in the volunteer tax prep include Beverly Bootstraps, Chelsea CONNECT, the City of Boston’s Office for Financial Empowerment, Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, Jewish Vocational Services, North Shore Community Development Corporation, Quincy Community Action Programs, and Southern New Hampshire Family Services.
Call 2-1-1 to find a free volunteer tax preparation services near you.