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How to Get Free Help With Your Taxes

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

Milagros Aguas gets her tax return done with AARP Tax Aides William Slade and Art Welch in Washington DC. AARP Tax-Aide Program gears up for tax season.

Milagros Aguas gets her tax return prepared by AARP Foundation Tax Aide's William Slade (center) and Art Welch (right) at the Chevy Chase Community Center in Washington, D.C. — Louie Palu/ZUMA Press

En español | Milagros Aguas used to pay someone to prepare her taxes until her employer filed for bankruptcy and she lost her job.

That's when a friend recommended AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, a program that provides free tax assistance and preparation for low- and moderate-income filers, particularly to those age 60 and up.

"It helps me a lot," says Aguas, of Washington, D.C., who recently had her taxes prepared for the second year by Tax-Aide volunteers. "It's easy. There is no charge for the service … and the volunteers are very nice and helpful."

More than 148 million returns are expected to be filed this tax season. For the first four weeks, the average refund was $3,034, or $90 more than a year ago, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

In addition to AARP, taxpayers have other ways to get free tax help. The IRS offers Free File, which gives access to tax software from private companies to people with incomes of up to $58,000. The IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program also provides free preparation for filers with incomes of up to $52,000.

Millions over the years, though, have taken advantage of Tax-Aide. Started by a few AARP volunteers in 1968, the program has since grown to more than 35,000 trained volunteers in more than 5,000 locations nationwide. Last year, 2.6 million taxpayers used the service for their federal and state income tax returns.

One recent morning, a group of Tax-Aide volunteers at the Chevy Chase Community Center in Washington, D.C., waited for a snowstorm to subside and taxpayers to come in.

Most of the volunteers were new to the program, and each had reasons for wanting to spend 10 weeks on other people's taxes.

"It's like the ultimate sudoku," says William Slade, 67, who had been a tax preparer for H&R Block for 25 years before retiring in 2008. "There are more moving parts to the tax code than almost anything else."

That, along with dealing with each taxpayer's personal story, "makes it more fun than any other intellectual activity that you can imagine. Better than chess. Much better than bridge or cribbage."

Tamara Belden, 63, also volunteers to give her brain a workout, saying she's read that learning things gives people a mental edge. That wasn't her only goal, though.

Belden, who retired as a budget analyst with the Library of Congress and now works as a part-time tour guide, is weighing whether to become a paid tax preparer. The experience with Tax-Aide gives her the chance to see if she likes the work. She does so far and enjoys the interaction with taxpayers.

Recently, Belden prepared a return for a 30-something couple who were overjoyed to learn they were getting federal and local refunds totaling $1,500.

"You would have thought I was the fairy godmother," she says.

New volunteers say they underwent five days of intensive training — with homework.

"It was rigorous. It was like taking a crash college course," says Susan Phillips, a 65-year-old retired teacher. "It was challenging, which I liked."

Next page: Does Tax-Aide handle complicated returns? »

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