By: Karen Mann
March 26, 2010
Although it is a requirement to file a tax return each year, how to do so is not taught in school, or at the workplace. This means that many people are left with the decision to try to figure out their own tax return as best they can, or suck up their pride, open their wallets, and hire a professional to do it for them.
Many residents do not realize that they can receive help filing federal and state taxes locally and free of charge through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. One local agency that is offering the program is Montachuesett Opportunity Council, Inc.
Any individual or family with a household income of under $49,000 can qualify for the VITA program, as long as they do not own a business or have rental property, but those who are small, independent contractors can utilize the program.
"Once they are screened, they are given an appointment, and a letter of what to bring," said Marie LeBlanc, the financial literacy and asset development coordinator of MOC.
Lynn Despres brought her son, who is a college student that also works part-time, to have his taxes done at MOC. Despres, a Leominster resident, said they usually utilize the tax preparation program at the Leominster Public Library, but because those working at the library were booked until late in the season, they recommended Despres' son schedule an appointment with MOC.
"From the lady who took our information, to the lady who just did [a second check of the return], they were very nice," said Despres. "I would definitely come back and feel comfortable."
Both LeBlanc and MOC's Associate Director Patricia Pistone want to get the word out about the program, because they said many people that could be utilizing it are not. MOC has not filled all of the time slots that were designated for tax preparations, although LeBlanc anticipates the agency will assist in preparing 300 returns.
"A lot of people have misconceptions about what they can claim," said LeBlanc. "This year it is very challenging."
This is because of various tax credits, related to the purchase of new homes and cars, and earned income, according to LeBlanc.
The Earned Income Tax Credit is one that is really being pushed at all VITA sites this year. According to a press release from MOC, a working family with three or more qualifying children filing a joint return and with an income of less than $43,279 ($48,279 married filing jointly) in 2009, may be eligible for up to $5,657 in federal and state credits. A family with one qualifying child and earnings of $35,463 ($40,463 married filing jointly) is eligible for a credit of $3,043. For those without children, a single person earning up to $13,440 or a married couple filing jointly earning up to $18,440 are eligible for $457 in the EITC credits.
That release also states, for the 2008 tax-filing year, more than 50,000 eligible families did not apply for the credit, equaling about $75 million in unclaimed money.
Locally, families who utilized the MOC VITA program last year received an average of $1,333 per family in earned income credit.
The assistance from MOC does not stop once a tax return is filed.
"We do a quick pre-assessment of what other MOC programs they could qualify for," said Pistone. "MOC has a lot of financial literacy programs that we try to get them into."
One program is the Individual Development Account, which encourages people to save, not spend, their tax refund check. If the person saves $1,333 (the average EI credit) they will receive a $4,000 match to purchase a home, return to school, or start or enhance a small business.
According to Pistone, more than 25 people have benefited from this program. They can also enroll in various classes about money management.
MOC officials also want people who would like to volunteer as tax preparers to utilize the program as well.
"Without volunteers we would not have the program," said LeBlanc.
"We would like to recruit more elderly and college students from FSC (Fitchburg State College)," said Pistone. "It would be nice to get that support from the community."
There are 10 volunteers helping out, at MOC this year, which is a small drop from last years, number, 13, but a significant increase from three years ago when there was only one volunteer.
LeBlanc stressed that volunteers do not have to be in the financial field or even previously-trained as a tax preparer, but it does take a certain caliber to volunteer for the program.
Volunteers must take the IRS certified test every year, but they can seek out support from MOC officials to help prepare for it. The online test is comprised of eight different tax filer scenarios and the test taker must receive a score of 80 or higher. It is free to become certified.
LeBlanc said MOC helps potential volunteers by talking them through the practice test materials and allowing them to take the test from a MOC site.