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How to Get Free Help With Your Taxes

AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program assists millions in preparing their returns

Training leads to IRS certification. Even experienced volunteers undergo annual training to keep them up to date on the tax code.

Volunteers can spot overlooked tax breaks, though they say that regular Tax-Aide clients often are quick to point out deductions.

"Our clients keep us on our toes," says Dick Riegel, 72, a retired Air Force pilot and coordinator of the Chevy Chase site.

Tax-Aide doesn't handle complicated returns, such as those dealing with royalties or farm income. And though the program focuses on helping older taxpayers, it's open to all ages.

"On a single day four years ago, my first client was 18 years old, filing his first return, and my second client was 102," Riegel says.

Volunteers commit to four hours a week for the duration of tax season.

"Many people do much more than that," says Dorothy Howe, the assistant national director of AARP Foundation Tax-Aide.

The typical length of service is seven years, although some have been with the program for more than 30 years, Howe says.

Still, the program loses 10 percent to 20 percent of its volunteers each year through attrition and must replace them.

Ideal candidates enjoy working with numbers, are comfortable with computers and are not afraid to ask for help, volunteers say. They also must be discreet, patient, easygoing and good listeners.

"You do have times where a taxpayer gets anxious because he or she thinks they owe a lot," Riegel says. "And we get spouses who are newly widowed, so we have to help them through that first period."

Slade recalls an 80-year-old taxpayer who had always done his own return until this year, when his taxes suddenly got complicated. The man had inherited money from an annuity and distributed the cash to others as the deceased had wanted, although this triggered an income tax for him, Slade says.

Slade was able to walk the man through the situation, and as it turns out, the tax bite was much less than feared.

Brandy Bauer, communications manager for economic security with the National Council on Aging, says her group refers people to Tax-Aide.

"AARP is a very trusted [organization] for a lot of older adults, my mom included," says Bauer, whose 72-year-old mother uses Tax-Aide.

"It works for her. She does it every year," Bauer says.


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