While millions of Americans reached into their wallets to pay for tax preparation this year, almost 2 million low- and moderate-income taxpayers were able to save more than $40,000,000 by taking advantage of the free tax service operated by AARP Tax-Aide, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary. AARP Tax-Aide, the nation's largest, free, volunteer-run tax preparation service has 30,000 volunteers who provide help at 8,600 sites around the nation. Since the program began in 1968, its volunteers have helped 34 million taxpayers.
"AARP is committed to public service. Tax-Aide, part of AARP's community service initiative, is able to help millions of people in a tangible way and at the same time offer a great volunteer opportunity for direct public service," said Bonnie Speedy, director of the program.
AARP Tax-Aide was founded in 1968 with just four volunteers. That year it had 100 clients. It was one of AARP's earliest efforts to ensure important services were available to older people. AARP recognized that many people lacked the necessary skills to prepare their own tax returns and as a result were paying tax preparation services for even the simplest returns.
"Often people who have the most trouble with their returns are the people who could least afford to pay for the preparation services," said Speedy. "When you have a fixed or low income, every dollar is important." Volunteers are trained to help people with low and moderate incomes take advantage of the deductions and credits to which they are entitled to and save some money.
During the off-season, AARP Tax-Aide provides on-line tax counseling and trains volunteers for the next tax season. From February 1 through April 15 each year, the program offers one-on-one counseling, as well as assistance on the telephone and Internet. Funded and operated under a cooperative agreement with the IRS as part of its Tax Counseling for the Elderly program, the program is operated by the AARP Foundation, AARP's affiliated charity. It trains volunteers to prepare basic tax forms, including the 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ and other standard schedules. Many of the program's sites now file electronically, which gets taxpayers their refunds as quickly as possible. The program gives special attention to people 60 and older.
"We try hard to make the service as convenient as possible," said Speedy. Sites are placed in convenient locations, such as senior centers, libraries and malls. "When possible, our volunteers will even make home visits for people who can't come to one of our sites because of physical disability."
Other than a handful of paid staff in Washington D.C., the program is completely operated from top to bottom by volunteers. "It's the volunteers who make this program happen. We have volunteers who are retired, still working, stay-at-home moms, students, people who are self-employed, from all walks of life. The common denominator is they want to give something back to their communities," said Speedy.
The service may be free, but it is certainly not cut-rate. "Our volunteers are top-notch," added Speedy. "A survey of clients showed that 97 percent of them would recommend the service to others."
Speedy noted that the tax-preparation industry is unregulated. "Anyone, qualified or not, can operate a tax-preparation business," she said. "AARP volunteers have to be trained and pass a competency test every year before they can help anyone with a return. The time our volunteers give and their commitment are truly exceptional."
AARP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to making life better for people 50 and over. We provide information and resources; engage in legislative, regulatory and legal advocacy; assist members in serving their communities; and offer a wide range of unique benefits, special products, and services for our members. These include AARP The Magazine, published bimonthly; AARP Bulletin, our monthly newspaper; Segunda Juventud, our quarterly newspaper in Spanish; NRTA Live & Learn, our quarterly newsletter for 50+ educators; and our Web site, www.aarp.org. We have staffed offices in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.