William Stromsem, J.D., CPA, George Washington University School of Business
The IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program provides free tax return preparation services for low-income working families. VITA clinics organize and train volunteers to help taxpayers file returns with refundable credits to provide much-needed cash to support families who are not making enough to get by. Families can receive several thousands of dollars, with larger families receiving larger refunds. For a low-income family, this can help avoid difficult choices in prioritizing among otherwise necessary expenses. This is intended money that comes into your community from the federal government and it can help reduce the burden on local governments to provide support.
It is difficult for most CPAs to participate in VITA programs because of year-end work, but CPAs in business, industry, government, education and other areas may be able to participate. Even tax practitioners may be able to help, with many returns done in late-January and early-February, as taxpayers seek refunds as soon as possible. Clinics are generally open on weekends or weekday evenings, and volunteers can typically work as little as four hours a week. You may not have recently dealt with issues of low-income tax returns, but as a CPA you will already know more than most volunteers, and you will easily master the knowledge with some brief training and with helpful return software.
Your participation would be invaluable because most non-CPA VITA volunteers have less than 20 hours of training and have passed a simple IRS certification test. An established VITA site may have volunteers from prior years who can review returns and help guide newer volunteers. These are well-meaning, but inexperienced volunteers who could benefit from your professional experience.
You might enjoy working with a team of well-meaning volunteers from your community who are providing hands-on service to local low-income families. You will work directly with low-income individuals you never would get to know otherwise. You may initially be outside your comfort zone, but after you work directly with people who need your help and who you can meaningfully help, you may find VITA volunteering a very satisfying experience.
VITA clients often lack the math or language skills to prepare their own returns, and commercial return preparers often charge high fees for returns with refundable credits. Forms for these credits are some of the most complex individual income tax forms and without help from a VITA clinic, many of the potential recipients may forgo the intended government benefits or end up paying relatively high fees to commercial return preparers. Commercial preparers charge high fees because of the complexity and added due-diligence requirements for some credits, and (in the past) higher audit rates. These preparation fees take much-needed money away from low-income families and some commercial preparers also tempt low-income individuals to take refund anticipation loans at very high interest rates, taking even more of a family’s scarce money.
Many VITA sites are located at universities, religious organizations, libraries or other facilities that are near you. You can find local VITA clinics using the VITA Locator Tool.
There are a lot of great people pitching in and hopefully you will enjoy the team effort to help others. And good for you for considering this pro-bono service!