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Florida

How to Get Help With Tax Returns

Volunteers, especially Spanish speakers, needed throughout the state

En español | Every year when tax season rolls around, Edith Roberts, 89, calls the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteer who does her taxes to find out where she'll be volunteering.

The Kendall resident's taxes normally aren't very complicated, but she trusts Tax-Aide volunteer Chris Tyson, of Coral Gables, to sort out any minor problems.

See also: Cut your taxes for 2011.

Roberts is one of the nearly 232,000 Florida taxpayers who come to Tax-Aide each year for the free assistance that is targeted at low- to moderate-income taxpayers. While the focus is on taxpayers 60 or older, the volunteers don't turn anyone away because of age.

Roberts has turned to Tax-Aide — and Tyson — for the past 10 years.

Although not all volunteers develop the kind of long-term relationship Tyson has with Roberts, many say the opportunity to help people is the most rewarding part of the work. Last year, more than 3,200 volunteers in Florida worked at 305 sites.

The service is the largest free, volunteer-run tax assistance program in the country. Tax-Aide coordinators are always looking for more volunteers.

"They don't have to have a college degree. They don't have to have an accounting background," said William Casement, 70, of Alpharetta, Ga., the volunteer regional coordinator for Florida and Georgia. "You just have to be willing to serve."

Not all Tax-Aide volunteers are involved in tax preparation. Casement said he is also looking for volunteers with computer or marketing expertise.

"We're not just looking for people that do taxes, and we're not just looking for CPAs. I wouldn't turn anybody away."

Volunteers who assist with tax preparation receive five days of training and must pass the IRS tax-certification exam. Training is usually in December and early January.

They work at sites such as public libraries and community centers and prepare taxes from Feb. 1 through mid-April.

Tax-Aide volunteers don't speak to the IRS on behalf of clients, but they are often able to explain the process clients should use to resolve a problem.

Spanish speakers needed

Ofelia Clouston, a retired nurse in Miami, has volunteered in the Tax-Aide program in Coral Gables since 1994.

"I felt like I could help people, but I didn't want to do any more nursing," she said. "And I've learned a lot. It's not the same doing your own taxes."

Clouston, 83, is Cuban American and fluent in Spanish, a crucial need at many of the tax preparation sites.

In Miami-Dade, the volunteers strive to have at least one Spanish-speaking volunteer at every site. The program is looking for more Spanish-speaking volunteers for locations all over Florida.

Casement said the work is gratifying because "when you're helping someone and they basically say to you, 'I don't know what I'd do if it weren't for you,' there really is no greater reward. We can save people anywhere from $200 to upwards of $400 or $500 that they'd have to pay to a [professional] tax preparer. That's an awful lot of money."

Tyson, a Tax-Aide volunteer for 25 years, says she's seen it all, from folks who come in with a shoe box of receipts to people who have never filed a tax return.

For instance, one couple who asked for her help last year had never filed tax returns, but they were trying to get a loan.

"They were told they had to show tax returns. It turns out they were getting $4,000 back in refunds" for three tax years, Tyson said. "They were really surprised. They got that loan that they wanted."

To volunteer or to find a Tax-Aide site near you, visit aarp.org/taxaide or call toll-free 1-888-227-7669.

You may also like: Frequently asked federal tax questions >>

Susannah Nesmith is a writer living in Miami.

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