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Volunteer Tax Assistants

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It was Benjamin Franklin who famously said, " this world nothing is certain but death and taxes."

You can't get very far without paying taxes. From the purchases you make, to the property you own, to the income you earn -- it's all taxed. And nothing's worse than finding out you haven't paid enough taxes during the year and now owe still more.

Tax preparation services are available to help people figure out what they owe. These services help people find all the tax credits they qualify for, returning as much money to their pockets as possible. However, the service for a simple tax return can cost over $100, making it unaffordable for people with low incomes.

Fortunately, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offers free tax help to people in need. Tax assistance programs include the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA) for people with low to moderate incomes; Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) for people 60 years and older; and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Tax-Aide for people with low to middle incomes, especially those over 60.

Community volunteers provide tax counseling through these and other organizations and initiatives. They offer their advice at neighborhood centers, libraries, schools, shopping malls, churches and other public locations across the country.

Volunteers don't have to have a background in accounting, but it helps if they have completed their own tax returns in the past. Volunteers receive training on tax law and tax software, and must pass a test to become certified.

A large number of volunteers are retirees. Others are college students in accounting, tax or law programs.

"We work with professors. The accounting department or the tax department [at the school] gives these students credits -- either credits for community service or credits towards the class itself," says Alexa Lam, a senior relationship tax consultant for the IRS-SPEC VITA program in Santa Clara County, California.

"And [the students] get live experience by getting hands-on interviewing, answering questions and preparing income tax returns for the low-income taxpayers.

"The volunteers gain a special skill and knowledge in tax law when they come to the training offered by the IRS or the Community-Based Organization Partners with the IRS," she says. "We teach them how to interview the taxpayers to gather information to complete the tax returns, and to answer technical tax law questions using IRS publications and reference materials provided through training. And they're gaining many skills -- for example, communication skills, interviewing skills, time management skills."

So, in addition to helping people in need, volunteers gain valuable skills and knowledge they can use in their careers. Besides that, there are some people who just plain enjoy preparing other people's taxes.

"It's fun to do," says Clarence Mohr, a volunteer tax assistant. "It's enjoyable doing taxes."

Danette Kobolt is a recent law school graduate. She volunteers 20 hours per week during tax season. She even volunteered during the semester before tax season -- and that was on top of full-time law school studies.

Kobolt is the national student director for the American Bar Association VITA program. She oversees VITA's tax assistance sites at law schools throughout the country.

She started out as a volunteer preparing income tax returns for clients. Many of her clients were fellow students from her Michigan law school. She became a site supervisor the following year, reviewing tax returns completed by volunteers. And the year after that, she applied for the national student director role. She interviewed for the volunteer position and got it.

"I have an accounting and finance background from undergrad, and I just basically want to help people, and that's one way that I can give back to the community," she says.

Kobolt says that she has gained self-confidence and leadership skills through her volunteer roles. Also, tax law is a career path she is considering for her future. But whether or not she pursues tax law, she believes her volunteer work is valuable.

"No matter how high up the totem pole you get, giving back to the community is always beneficial because it's giving back to where you came from," she says. "It's just the satisfaction that I've helped someone sleep better at night, knowing that they're not going to have the IRS knocking on their door."

Instead of playing golf during his retirement, Clarence Mohr volunteers to help people with their taxes. "It's my golf game," he says.

Twelve years ago, Mohr volunteered at a summer program offering tax assistance to low-income individuals. "I was surprised at how many people would come," he says.

When the program ended a few years later, Mohr knew there would be a lot of people looking for tax help. So, he started up his own free tax assistance program.

Both Mohr and his wife run a year-round drop-in program twice a week. Some days they see as many as 40 clients. And when they're not at the drop-in program, they're preparing taxes from home, following up with clients, and doing home visits for people who can't get out. They even prepare taxes for inmates in the prison system.

Many of their clients are homeless. Some of them had short-term jobs during the year, but they're missing the paperwork they need to file their taxes. So Mohr makes a three-way call with his client and the government, and gets the information he needs over the phone.

"That is sort of more unique," he says. "Not many people are doing that. But it's really required with the homeless people because often they don't have the [necessary documents]."

James Helvick is a regional coordinator with the AARP Tax-Aide Program near Badger, Iowa. He oversees the program's operation in seven states. "In a sense, it's kind of like [being] a CEO of an area," he says.

Even with CEO-like responsibilities, Helvick's position is completely voluntary. A retired schoolteacher, Helvick started out with Tax-Aide as a volunteer tax counselor. He continues to provide free tax counseling during tax season.

"I just enjoy working with computers. I enjoy working with numbers. I'm an old math teacher -- that's probably part of it," he explains. "And I personally enjoy the interpersonal relations between the folks.

"It is intriguing, sometimes, the reaction that folks have when we tell them they're getting refunds, or they're getting this or they're getting that," he says. "They think that we have done some marvelous job. ... The biggest benefit, of course, is it doesn't cost them anything. ... That's something most are very, very, very appreciative of."

How to Get Involved

To volunteer for the AARP Tax-Aide program, visit the AARP Tax-Aide's website. The program offers training to new and returning volunteers. Volunteers must pass a test to become certified.


Internal Revenue Service


Internal Revenue Service - Tax Assistance Programs
Learn more about the IRS's free tax assistance programs

AARP Tax-Aide Program
Learn more about the program and apply to volunteer

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)
Learn new tax skills and help individual and families

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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.