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VITA and TCE volunteers work around COVID-19 to help taxpayers file returns

VITA tax volunteer helping a taxpayer file her return_IRS video screenshot
A VITA volunteer helps a taxpayer prepare and e-filer her tax return for free. (IRS video screenshot)

Tax software works fine for millions of taxpayers. Another sizeable chunk of filers opt for more personal service from a tax professional.

Then there are people for whom software just doesn't cut it. They need or want more help and assurance that their taxes will be filed correctly. But they can't afford a tax preparer.

Say hello to Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE).

Trained volunteer tax filing help: VITA programs across the United States offer free tax help to people who generally make less than $57,000 (the income threshold is higher in more expensive locales) fill out and e-file their tax returns for free.

VITA volunteers also help individuals with disabilities or those whose English may be limited fulfill these tax responsibilities.

TCE sites, most of which are operated by the AARP Foundation's Tax Aide program, provide similar no-cost return preparation and e-filing services primarily for, you guessed it, older taxpayers. This generally is filers who are 60 years of age and older.

At both VITA and TCE sites, the volunteers are members of your local community. Often they are retired tax professional or even some former Internal Revenue Service employees.

VITA TCE certified banner

But even without that prior work experience, the folks staffing VITA and TCE locations are tax savvy, having been trained and certified by the IRS.

Sort-of DIY: Some VITA and TCE sites also give filers the option to prepare their own basic federal and state tax returns for free using Web-based tax preparation software.

How is this do-it-yourself option at a VITA or TCE location different from Free File? At one of the volunteer locations, you do your taxes online, but if you run into a problem someone is there to help guide you through the process.

Look for the "Self-Prep" notation in the location listings if you're interested in trying to do your taxes yourself, but like the idea of expert back-stopping if you have trouble or questions.

Finding a service near you: Now about those VITA and TCE site listings. The services generally are located at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools, shopping malls and other convenient locations across the country.

You can find the nearest VITA or TCE by using the VITA Locator Tool or calling toll-free 1 (800) 906-9887. For TCE-specific locations, use the AARP Site Locator Tool or calling toll-free 1 (888) 227-7669. You can also use the IRS2Go mobile app to find a site near you.

With a couple of clicks on my laptop, I found 4 VITA and 7 TCE locations within 25 miles of my house. Hey, I'm a Texan. We're used to driving longer distances. You can search for sites as close as 5 miles from your home.

That's a decent selection, but it's about half the number I found this time last year. The main reason, I suspect, is the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 complications: When most of the country went into self-isolation mode last March, which was the middle of last tax season's extended filing period, many VITA and TCE locations also closed.

Some reopened later by providing virtual services. That online help option is still available at most currently-open VITA and TCE sites. But some also are offering drop-off services or specific appointment times for face-to-face filing help.

Again, patience is requested. A site's services, be they in person, virtual or a combination, will vary depending on coronavirus cases in the area and state and local regulations.

The number of volunteers also could impact the offerings, since volunteers often are older and might be waiting for their vaccinations before heading to a filing site.

So check the back periodically for updates in site status. The online search tools will be updated regularly from through April.

Popular, but confusing, tax break help: The goal of volunteers at VITA and TCE sites is to help as many eligible taxpayers as possible. To that end, this means they typically help the large pool of taxpayers with more basic filing needs.

They also focus on tax benefits that typically apply to filers who have lower earnings. Atop the "help, please!" tax break lists is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). For the 2020 tax year, EITC-eligible families with three or more qualifying children could receive a credit of up to $6,660. Single filers without dependent children could get up to $538.

But the EITC can be confusing. Plus, this year, a COVID-19 prompted provision allows filers to choose between using their 2020 or 2019 tax year income when claiming the EITC. Plus, the same tax year choice is available this filing season to taxpayers who are eligible for the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC).

Tax site volunteers can help filers decipher the EITC and ACTC requirements and determine which tax year earnings to use.

Lots, but not total, tax help: That focus by VITA and TCE on helping a broad base of taxpayers with more basic filing needs means that some areas are excluded.

That's why VITA and TCE will not help prepare returns that involve:

  • Schedule C sole proprietor returns with losses, depreciation or business use of home
  • Complicated Schedule D filings, i.e., capital gains and losses
  • Form SS-5, request for Social Security Number
  • Form 8606, reporting of non-deductible IRA contributions
  • Form 8814, filed to report a child's investment income taxed at the parent's tax rate, aka the kiddie tax
  • Form SS-8, determination of worker status for purposes of federal employment taxes and income tax withholding
  • Parts 4 and 5 of Form 8962, premium tax credits related to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)

You can find more on the type of tax issues VITA and TCE will and won't tackle in IRS Publication 3676-B.

Pre-help preparation: VITA and TCE are free, but just as if you were going to a private tax preparer that you hired, you still must do some groundwork before you get to one of the volunteer sites.

To ensure that your tax return can be completed accurately, they ask that you bring with you:

  • Proof of identification, such as a photo ID
  • Social Security cards or Individual Taxpayer Identification notices/cards for you, your spouse and any dependents
  • Birth dates for you, your spouse and dependents you will claim on the return
  • Proof of foreign status if applying for ITIN
  • All W-2 and 1099 forms
  • Any other information for other income not reported on a 1099
  • Information supporting all deductions and credits
  • Total paid to day care provider and the care giver's tax ID number
  • Affordable Care Act documents, including Forms 1095-A, B or C or a Health Insurance Exemption Certificate, if received  
  • Proof of an account at a bank or other financial institution for direct deposit of refund
  • A copy of last year's tax return, if applicable
  • For filing of prior year returns, copies of income transcripts from IRS and, if applicable, your state filings.

Also note that if you're married and you and your spouse want to file a joint return, both of you must come to the VITA or TCE site.

Be prepared, be patient: Finally, note that while VITA and TCE volunteers strive to provide the best tax help they can, they are not miracle workers. If your filing is beyond their expertise, they will let you know.

And again, be prepared to be flexible. You might have to wait a bit longer for a virtual or in-person appointment. You might have to go to a site that's a bit further from your home than you'd like.

But know that when you do connect with a VITA or TCE volunteer, they'll do their best to help you fulfill your tax tasks.

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