The COVID-19 pandemic has presented myriad challenges as far as taxes.
Most notable is the backlog of tax documents the Internal Revenue Service still is working to clear. They started piling up when, as a pandemic precaution in 2020, the IRS closed most of its offices.
But the coronavirus also created numerous difficulties for taxpayers just trying to send their returns to the IRS. Among those hit hardest are individuals who rely on Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) services.
In 2020, as we were just learning about the virus and how to protect ourselves, most of these sites closed before the end of that filing season. Last year, they returned, but there were fewer locations and volunteers.
Now, as we are more adept at dealing with the pandemic and its precautions, more VITA and TCE locations are back and helping taxpayers.
For those who want more than software: VITA and TCE sites are found nationwide, and offer free basic tax return preparation to qualified individuals who need assistance doing their own taxes.
The programs are particularly welcomed by folks not completely comfortable with using tax preparation software on their own, but who can't afford to hire a tax preparer.
The VITA program has been around for more than half a century. Its target clients are:
- People who generally make $58,000 or less,
- Individuals with disabilities, and
- Taxpayers whose native language is not English.
TCE is a companion program to VITA. It also offers free tax prep and filing assistance, for both federal and state returns, to taxpayers who are age 60 and older. As you might expect, TCE staff specialize in tax questions about pensions and retirement-related issues.
IRS quality control requirements: VITA and TCE sites are operated by IRS partners. The volunteer staff are there because they want to make a difference in their communities. And since taxes and people's money is involved, they and the IRS also want to make sure they know what they are doing.
Some of the site volunteers are former tax professionals. Some even used to work for the IRS. To ensure their tax return help is accurate, every volunteer regardless of their tax backgrounds is certified by the IRS to do the job.
All VITA and TCE volunteers who prepare returns must take and pass tax law training that meets or exceeds IRS standards. This training includes maintaining the privacy and confidentiality of all taxpayer information. In addition, the IRS requires a quality review check for every return prepared at a VITA/TCE site prior to filing.
A sort-of DIY option, too: Some of the program sites also offer a less hands-on assistance option. They give filers the option to prepare their own basic federal and state tax returns for free at the locations, 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 VITA or TCE sites: Now about those locations.
VITA and TCE sites are generally located at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools, shopping malls, and other convenient locations across the country. You can locate the VITA or TCE site nearest you by using the IRS' VITA Locator Tool or calling toll-free (800) 906-9887.
When looking for a TCE site, keep in mind that a majority of the TCE sites are operated by the AARP Foundation's Tax Aide program. To locate the nearest AARP TCE Tax-Aide site between January and April use the AARP Site Locator Tool or call, again toll-free, (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 6 VITA and 14 TCE locations within 25 miles of my house. Hey, I'm a Texan, specifically a West Texan. We're used to driving longer distances. But if you don't like hitting the road, you can search for sites as close as 5 miles from your home.
That's a decent, and larger (2 more VITA locations, and double the TCE sites), selection than last year. Apparently, the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions has helped expand the locations in 2022.
COVID-19 complications: That said, the IRS and its affiliated VITA and TCE partners are not taking anything, tax or health-related, for granted.
All of the sites in my part of Central Texas require appointments. This prevents a mass gathering of taxpayers, which could, even after COVID vaccinations and boosters, pose potential infection issues.
Most sites also note that in addition to following Centers for Disease Control coronavirus guidelines, they also comply with local health requirements to protect the health and safety of VITA or TCE volunteers, staff, and the taxpayers seeking help.
A perusal of the internet found similar COVID protocols in effect at VITA and TCE sites nationwide. Some also are, weather permitting, offering outdoor tax preparation services.
In addition, some sites still are using methods they implemented in 2020 and 2021, notably virtual services. In addition to the online help option, other sites also offer drop-off services.
Pre-help preparation: You've found your local VITA or TCE locale, and made your appointment. Before you go, though, you must do some pre-filing prep work.
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.
Lots, but not total, tax help: Finally, remember that VITA and TCE volunteers focus on helping a broad base of taxpayers. This means they work on returns that cover more basic filing issues.
So that necessarily means that some, particularly more complex, tax areas are not addressed at VITA and TCE sites. Returns that involve the following will not be worked on at the sites:
- 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, as well as a reminder of the documents you need to bring, in IRS Publication 3676-B.
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 also 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 meet your tax filing responsibilities.
You also might find these items of interest:
- IRS is seeking volunteers for VITA and TCE programs
- IRS TACs open for walk-in tax help on Saturday, March 12
- IRS awards $41 million in grants to 334 VITA/TCE programs
- Improve the IRS by joining the Taxpayer Advocacy Panel