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VITA & TCE volunteers ready to help filers do their taxes

VITA IRS graphic

You need to file your taxes, but you need help. You're on a tight budget, so you gave Free File a look. But you quickly discovered that you want more help than a tax software program provides.

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) or Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) could be your answer.

VITA and TCE sites are nationwide, usually at locations that are convenient for community residents to find and get to. They are staffed by Internal Revenue Service-trained volunteers. In many locations, the tax preparers are able to help taxpayers whose first language isn't English.

And they are ready to help lower-income and older taxpayers fulfill their annual filing responsibilities.

Qualifying for VITA, TCE help: The VITA program has been around and offering free basic tax return preparation to eligible taxpayers for more than half a century.

Qualifying VITA clients generally are —

  • People who make $60,000 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. Some are students, like the young volunteers in El Paso, Texas.

But regardless of the VITA or TCE volunteers' backgrounds, the sites and IRS want to ensure their tax return help is accurate.

That's why every VITA and TCE volunteer who prepares 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.

VITA TCE certified banner

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 nearest you, use the AARP Site Locator Tool, which is updated regularly from the start of tax season through April. Or you can call, again toll-free, (888) 227-7669.

For mobile device users, you IRS2Go mobile app will help you find a site near you.

With a couple of clicks on my laptop, I found 8 VITA and 19 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 (two more VITA locations, and five more TCE sites), selection than last year. Apparently, the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions has helped expand the locations in 2023.

COVID-19 complications: That said, the IRS and its affiliated VITA and TCE partners are not taking anything, tax or health-related, for granted.

Most 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, particularly for older individuals.

Be sure to check with the site you choose about any other precautions or protocols that might apply so that you're not surprised when you arrive.

Pre-help preparation: You also need to be aware of the pre-VITA/TCE site visit requirements related to your taxes. Specifically, you must do some pre-filing prep work.

To ensure that your tax return can be completed accurately, all volunteer tax filing help sites 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 any 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.

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