Everyone needs help now and then. That truism especially applies to filing taxes.
But not everyone can afford to hire a tax professional.
That's where the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs come into play.
For decades, these two programs have provided free tax preparation and filing assistance during the annual filing season to millions of lower- and middle-income taxpayers, as well as elderly filers. The Internal Revenue Service just announced its financial support for 334 VITA and TCE programs in 2022.
Now the agency is looking for volunteers to staff all these sites across the United States next year.
Who's eligible for free tax filing help: VITA help generally is available to taxpayers making $58,000 or less. Eligible VITA clients also include people with disabilities and those whose who are not proficient in or comfortable speaking English.
The companion TCE program is mainly for people age 60 or older. That's why many TCE sites are operated through AARP Foundation Tax-Aide. And although the program focuses on tax issues unique to seniors, most taxpayers can usually get free assistance.
At both VITA and TCE sites, once the tax returns are properly completed, the workers help the taxpayers e-file their returns. This helps them get any refunds more quickly.
Who's providing the tax help: This nationwide no-cost tax assistance comes from a special group of people. They are volunteers.
But don't worry. It's not just any Joe or Kathy walking in off the street to start filling in folks' 1040 forms. And no disparagement meant toward folks with these names; J & K are a couple of my cousins, neither of whom is in the tax preparation business.
All VITA and TCE volunteers are trained by the Internal Revenue Service. And yes, since the COVID-19 pandemic is still hanging on, proper precautions are taken during the training.
Why to volunteer: The IRS has put out its annual call for individuals who want to volunteer at VITA and TCE locations across the country. It's also emphasizing why people might want to volunteer. The reasons offered by the IRS include —
- Hours are flexible. Volunteers can generally choose their own hours and days to volunteer. Tax preparation sites are usually open from late January through the tax filing deadline in April. Some sites are even open all year.
- Virtual work is an option. Some volunteer sites will offer virtual help for taxpayers. This allows volunteers to help taxpayers complete their tax returns over the phone or online. Some volunteers will conduct a virtual quality review with the taxpayer before e-filing their tax return.
- You don't need any prior experience. Volunteers receive specialized training to become IRS-certified. They can also choose from a variety of volunteer roles to serve. VITA and TCE programs want volunteers of all backgrounds and ages, as well as individuals who are fluent in other languages.
- The IRS provides free tax law training and materials. Volunteers receive training materials at no charge. The tax law training covers how to prepare basic federal tax returns electronically. The training also covers tax topics, such as deductions and credits.
And while, as mentioned earlier, professional tax experience isn't required, neither the IRS nor VITA or TCE sites will turn tax pros who have time — yeah, I know: unicorns — or retired tax preparers away.
In fact, if you are a working Enrolled Agent or non-credentialed tax return preparer, you can earn continuing education credits when volunteering as a VITA or TCE instructor, quality reviewer, or tax return preparer.
Varied volunteer options: Still a bit worried about what might be required of you if you volunteer, even with training? Don't be.
There are lots of jobs that need to be done at VITA and TCE locations. Several roles don't require tax law certification. Below are some of the VITA and TCE volunteer positions that usually are filled.
- Greeter/Screener – You greet everyone visiting the site to create a pleasant atmosphere. You screen taxpayers to determine the type of assistance they need and confirm they have the necessary documents to complete their tax returns. Tax law certification is not required for this position.
- Interpreter – You provide free language interpreter services to customers who are not fluent in English. Basic tax knowledge is helpful, but it is not required for this position.
- Site Administrator/Coordinator – You have excellent organizational and leadership skills. You are the primary resource for sharing your knowledge of the program and are available to assist with any issues that may arise. You develop and maintain schedules for all volunteers to ensure adequate coverage, supplies and equipment at your site. Tax law certification is not always required for this position.
- Tax Preparer – You complete and successfully certify in tax law training, including the use of electronic filing software, to provide free tax return preparation for eligible taxpayers.
- Quality Reviewer – You review tax returns completed by volunteer tax preparers, ensuring that every taxpayer receives top quality service and that the tax returns are error-free. You must be tax law certified at least at the Intermediate level.
- Computer Specialist or troubleshooter – You have a working knowledge of personal computers, software and communications systems. Tax law certification is not required for this position. If working at a self-prepare site you must become familiar with the various tax software option(s) available at your site. Although you may have less taxpayer interaction than most volunteers, you must be patient with those individuals who may not be as computer literate.
- Tax Coach – You provide tax law assistance and guide taxpayers in preparing their own tax returns. Tax law certification is required for this volunteer role and training is available on-line or through face-to-face instruction.
Some of these jobs still might be affected next filing season by coronavirus concerns. Let's hope by then, we are operating in much better health if not necessarily tax circumstances. But if we're still dealing with COVID, the IRS and volunteer sites know how to deal with it; they did so this year.
Meanwhile, if any (or several) of the VITA and TCE volunteer positions sound appealing, check the IRS volunteers' web page to learn more about becoming an IRS-certified volunteer. Then register online.
The IRS thanks you now. All the folks who'll be showing up at the tax help sites in a few months thank you in advance.
You also might find these items of interest:
- Your many tax season VITA & TCE volunteer opportunities
- Special clinics help low-income taxpayers resolve other IRS issues
- High school senior's volunteerism essay offers a valuable tax lesson