Tax season is upon us, accompanied by many new federal tax changes. If you are one of the many Americans struggling to understand how to fill out your tax forms, the IRS — yes, that IRS — may be able to offer you free assistance.
The IRS offers the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program to certain taxpayers that require aid with preparing their returns. The program is generally available to those making $55,000 per year or less, elderly or disabled taxpayers, or those who have difficulty understanding English. VITA locations are sprinkled throughout America's community centers, libraries, shopping malls, and other public locations.
The VITA program is staffed by IRS-certified volunteers who can assist with basic tax preparation questions, and in some cases, electronic filing. Filing advice covers many of the common tax forms and their impacts, including many varieties of 1099 forms. The 1099 forms report income from sources ranging from interest and dividends to Social Security or unemployment benefits and IRA contributions.
VITA staff may be able to assist with complex tax issues, such as those including home sales, health savings accounts, and self-employment. Within limits, VITA staff can also address itemized deductions and amended returns. More complex cases such as Schedule C forms with losses may be beyond VITA's expertise and should be taken to a tax professional in any case.
Here are the main items that you will need to bring with you to the VITA location:
- Basic Information – Identification for you and your spouse, and birthdates and Social Security cards/Individual Tax Identification numbers for you, your spouse, and all dependents.
- Forms – All W-2 and 1099 forms, a copy of your tax return from the previous year, and all 1095 forms (the health insurance statements).
- Supporting Information – Any information that documents other income and provides proof of eligibility for any deductions or credits. If you have a refund to be direct deposited, you will need to bring the account information and routing number for that account.
If your filing status is "married filing jointly," both spouses must be present at the VITA meeting.
For those over age 60 seeking assistance, the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program offers free tax assistance that is targeted toward senior-specific issues such as pensions and retirement benefits/plans. These sites are run through AARP but are also staffed by IRS-certified volunteers. TCE volunteers are typically retirees themselves and are usually associated with non-profits that receive grants to open and maintain VITA/TCE locations.
To get more information or find VITA or TCE sites near you, check out the IRS website. Tabs are available that will allow you to locate either VITA or TCE facilities via Google Maps. If you prefer the old school approach, you can also call 800-906-9887 for directions to the nearest location and answers to other questions about the VITA and TCE programs.
Both VITA and TCE provide tax assistance to an underserved portion of taxpayers who cannot afford professional tax preparation or have difficulty understanding the necessary rules and required forms. If you think you qualify and need assistance, do not hesitate to call. It is not worth risking potentially expensive tax errors, especially when the assistance is free and IRS-certified. You have probably given the IRS enough of your money over the years; now let them help you in return — pun intended.
A deal to temporarily end the recent government shutdown was announced on January 25. If the shutdown resumes again before tax season is over, however, VITA and TCE services may become unavailable. Either way, the sooner you set up your tax meeting, the sooner you may receive your refund.
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