March 26, 2013
With the April 15 deadline looming for filing income tax returns, Saturday, April 6, brings one last chance for community residents to get their income tax returns prepared for free by UNC Asheville volunteers as part of the IRS VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program. The tax preparation assistance team will be ready to prepare tax returns from 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m., April 6, in the Pack Memorial Library, 67 Haywood Street in downtown Asheville. (The library is closed March 30 for the Easter holiday.) No appointment is necessary.
The IRS VITA program offers free income tax preparation for people with incomes of $50,000 or less. VITA volunteers are trained in tax laws and procedures, and confidentiality. "Everyone who works at a VITA site must pass the Volunteer Standards of Conduct exam, whether they are greeting taxpayers, preparing returns or packaging them," says Monique Taylor, UNC Asheville's director of internal audit, who has directed the university's VITA program for the third consecutive tax season.
Saturdays at Pack Memorial Library, UNC Asheville student and alumni volunteers have provided free tax preparation help. They use tax preparation software to prepare returns, and each return is then reviewed multiple times to ensure accuracy, according to Joe Sulock, UNC Asheville's Cary Caperton Owen Professor of Economics who teaches the service-learning course students take to become VITA volunteers.
Students who volunteer come away with knowledge of tax preparation, and the feeling of having made an important community contribution. "We are saving people a few hundred dollars they might have paid to prepare their taxes," said Ben Judge, who is majoring in political science with a minor in economics. "And the most common tax credit that is missed is the earned income credit. When we point that out, it can make a few hundred dollars more difference to someone – that's a great feeling. Dr. Sulock and Monique Taylor make sure we are really prepared, and it has been a great experience."
"A lot of people come in nervous, but then they find they're getting a refund," said Margaret Swearingen, a double-major in accounting and German who has volunteered many Saturdays this semester. "Some people come in with very basic returns, and then you get people with trickier tax situations – it's very 'real world' – not like working a problem out of a textbook. All of the taxpayers have been really grateful." Swearingen plans to sit for the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) exam after she graduates.
Last year, the UNC Asheville VITA team prepared some 675 income tax returns (including state and federal returns), which included more than 200 returns for members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. UNC Asheville volunteers joined Cherokee volunteers providing in-person assistance on Qualla Boundary sites and Taylor led implementation of a "virtual VITA" program where tax documents were scanned and transmitted from Cherokee to Asheville.
This year, Cherokee's VITA program has become self-sufficient, so UNC Asheville's VITA team has worked exclusively in Asheville. Some 16 student and alumni volunteers have participated. Preparation of both federal and state returns is offered; those seeking preparation assistance should bring all W2 and other relevant documents. Self-filers who meet income guidelines can use free tax preparation and filing software online at myfreetaxes.com/unca.