BRADENTON -- Not only can income tax preparations be confusing and time-consuming, they can also be very costly if you have a complicated tax return with assets and deductions requiring the help of a professional accountant.
For individuals and families who fit the middle- and lower-income categories, free tax preparation services are definitely the route to go. So much so, the services are reporting steady annual increases of clients taking advantage of the two free national programs available to them: the AARP Tax-Aide Program and the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program or VITA.
The AARP reports that in 2013 alone, 2.6 million Americans nationwide utilized their free tax preparation services, giving special attention to people ages 55 and older with or without an AARP membership.
Preparers for both the AARP and the IRS-sponsored VITA programs are trained through an IRS course, which also certifies them after passage of an examination. Some AARP sites require an appointment, and some ask for a pre-signup at the front door. The VITA program at Suncoast Community Capital is only open to the public from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday evenings until the end of the tax season April 15.
"We don't have an income cutoff and we don't turn away anyone, but we like to keep it to people who have a certain income with a limited amount of capital gains," said Gordon MacLeod, regional site coordinator for the AARP Tax-Aide Program in Manatee County. "If we can handle their returns quickly, we don't have a problem."
After the preparers complete
their work, they are reviewed by another preparer, and then stored for nightly e-file processing, which can take anywhere from seven to 10 days for a return. MacLeod says security is not an issue and people shouldn't feel uneasy about having their information electronically filed.
"It goes directly to an IRS server, and if there's an identity theft issue, it will show up. This is something the IRS was a little slow getting to, but they're on top of it now," MacLeod said.
Hank Mosler just celebrated 10 years as an AARP tax preparer in Bradenton, and he says that up to 80 percent of his customers are repeats who are pleased with the quality of service.
"The price is right and people are obviously happy with our service, so folks keep coming back. First-timers often say they wish they had known about our services earlier and they're really surprised that it's free," Mosler said.
The tax preparers themselves come from all walks of life, and most are retirees who have worked on their own taxes and feel comfortable using a computer.
"If you have the desire to help the community, it's not too difficult to get through the training. Our volunteer preparers are retired lawyers, insurance agents, and even nurses," said Jahna Leinhauser, VITA site coordinator for Suncoast Community Capital, an organization whose mission is to increase financial independence and stability of families and communities through business coaching, career and financial education.
Suncoast's VITA program has no age restriction, and like AARP, focuses on low- to moderate-income households. Leinhauser says that Spanish-speaking clients and clients with physical disabilities and hearing impairments will not be turned away, as there are accommodations for them, including Spanish-language materials. Business was busy on Friday at the Manatee County Public Library in downtown Bradenton, with AARP tax facilitators and preparers working away while clients sat patiently waiting with all their tax information in hand. Barbara Volstad, a third-time customer from Bradenton, hitched a ride with her sister and didn't mind the wait, which typically averages under an hour for face-to-face time with a preparer."I will continue to come here as long as I can. It's such a relief and it alleviates a lot of headaches," Volstad said. "We know they do a great job."
Anyone with questions about the two services, or those who have a desire to become a volunteer tax preparer next year, should contact aarp.org or suncoastcc.com.