The incoming new year also ushers in one of the most inevitable and dreaded tasks: preparing taxes. For most people this involves hours of work, number crunching and hair pulling. AARP Tax-Aide, the nation’s largest free volunteer-run tax assistance and preparation service, helps seniors and low to moderate income taxpayers of all ages prepare their returns with substantially less stress.
Trained and Certified Tax Preparers offer Service Free of Charge
Each year from February 1 through April 15, trained and certified AARP Tax-Aide volunteers prepare, free of charge, federal, state and local tax returns for low- and middle -income taxpayers, with special attention to those age 60 and older.
In Montana in 2010, more than 170 AARP Tax-Aide volunteers helped more than 10,000 Montanans file their federal and state tax returns for a total of 5,749 tax returns. The total amount returned to the people of Montana through the volunteer’s efforts was $3,136,478.
AARP Tax-Aide Appoints New Leadership in Montana
AARP Tax-Aide recently appointed two new leaders for Montana. Dave Sletta from Billings was appointed as the State Coordinator replacing Ray Giebel from Musselshell who served for the past four years. Bill Gilman from Missoula was appointed State Training Specialist replacing Bob Meuchel also from Missoula.
Dave Sletta, a Great Falls native graduated from Montana State College in Industrial Engineering. His professional career was with Mountain Bell and U S West, holding various engineering and management positions in Montana, Arizona and Colorado. Upon retiring, he and his wife B.J. lived in Prescott, Arizona until 2004, when they moved back to Billings. After completing tax training with H&R Block, he became a counselor with AARP Tax-Aide in 2007.
Bill Gilman, a Minnesota native, is a retired school administrator from Wolf Point. Gilman brought his educational and classroom skills to train the trainers for the current tax season.
Immediate Rewards of Volunteering
Sletta hopes to strengthen the ranks of AARP Tax-Aide volunteers to assist in tax preparation and to become leadership coordinators. Volunteers are especially needed to assist with electronic filing of tax returns as well as coordinator positions. Volunteers of all ages and backgrounds are welcome regardless of AARP membership or retirement status.
“Although we are all set with volunteers for the upcoming tax season, we are continually looking for volunteers for the next tax season. Tax counselors receive free tax training and become IRS certified by passing the IRS exam. They help customers one-on-one at tax sites around the state,” said Sletta. “It's a great way to learn new skills and to be involved in your community.”
Concetta Eckel of Helena has volunteered with AARP Tax-Aide for 10 years as a tax counselor and also as a member of the state management team for five years. Having worked as a business owner for nearly twenty years, Eckel feels the program is a perfect match for her experience and expertise.
“I love being able to use my skills to provide services to those who can’t afford to hire a tax preparer,” said Eckel. “And I get to work with a great community of people – both clients and volunteers. All of our volunteers express joy at helping others and working with one another.”
Those who are not “number crunchers” may still find many other ways to get involved with AARP Tax-Aide, from serving as a greeter at tax assistance sites or managing volunteers, to helping provide technical assistance with technology. Although tax training and certification is encouraged, it is not required for many coordinator positions.
Putting “Cash” in the Hand
In Montana, an often overlooked tax credit is the Elderly Homeowner/Renter Credit. As the name indicates, this tax break is available to renters as well as homeowners as long as they were 62 or older by Dec. 31.
The claimants also must have lived in Montana for at least nine months during the tax year and occupied a Montana residence for six months or more during that time frame. Homeowners calculate their credit based on property taxes paid; renters use the amount of rent paid. Finally, the individuals must have gross household income of less than $45,000.
For eligible Montanans, the credit can be worth up to $1,000. Even better, it's a refundable tax credit, which means that if the credit amount exceeds the filer's state tax liability, the taxpayer will get that extra amount as a refund. In order to claim the credit, a form 2EC needs to be used. The form can be sent as part of the state income tax filing or separately if a Montana tax return is not required. Form 2EC also can be e-filed.
Additional refunds, mainly due to deductions and credits, make a significant difference for seniors’ and low income families’ budgets and stimulate local economies, Sletta said.
“When someone comes to you for help who is having trouble making ends meet and you are able to help them obtain a credit they didn’t know about previously – well, there’s almost no better feeling because the people you help are overwhelmed with gratitude,” he said.
Well Trained, Professional Assistance
“From our perspective at the IRS, volunteers are the most valuable resources that the free tax preparation program has,” said Fran Reichert, senior tax consultant for the Internal Revenue Service.
In Montana, all volunteers preparing returns in AARP Tax-Aide sites are certified through an advanced level of tax law training after passing a series of tests. Long-time volunteer Eckel has taken the test 11 years in a row.
Reichert says the IRS has established mandatory requirements to ensure taxpayers visiting volunteer sites receive quality service and accurate return preparation, along with full privacy, confidentiality and security of their data. Each return also undergoes a quality review process.
From Modest Beginnings
Administered by the AARP Foundation, Tax-Aide is fueled by the IRS-trained/certified and dedicated legion of volunteers like Sletta, Gilman and Eckel – 170 strong in Montana and nearly 35,000 nationwide. Since 1968, Tax-Aide volunteers have helped nearly 50 million low- to middle-income taxpayers, many of whom are aged 60 or older.
It all began with a chance discussion between an AARP executive and an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employee, both of whom were naval reservists. During a weekend drill, the IRS agent expressed concern to fellow reservist Bernie Nash—the Association’s executive director at the time—about older tax filers. The tax expert said older people sometimes made mathematical mistakes, used the wrong forms or failed to take credits to which they were entitled. Nash asked whether the IRS could provide training if AARP recruited volunteers to help others file their taxes.
Nash reported the discussion at the office the following week. He learned that four participants from AARP’s adult education program—the Institute of Lifetime Learning—were already volunteering time to help some of their fellow students complete their taxes. Within a year, the AARP Board of Directors had reached a formal agreement with the IRS. The Tax-Aide Program was an immediate success and grew steadily as more volunteers got training and word of the free tax-preparation assistance spread.
From its modest start with four volunteers, Tax-Aide has grown to become the nation’s largest free, volunteer-run tax preparation and assistance program. Approximately 34,600 AARP Tax-Aide volunteers, trained in cooperation with the Internal Revenue Service, help more than 2.6 million taxpayers file their federal, state, and local tax returns each year. The AARP Tax-Aide program is offered at approximately 6,500 locations nationwide in senior centers, libraries, community centers, and at other convenient locations across the country.
Where to go for help
AARP Tax-Aide sites are operational from Feb. 1 through April 15. During that season, taxpayers can get help or find the Montana Tax-Aide site nearest them online or by calling 1-888-AARPNOW (1-888-227-7669) toll-free. Online tax counseling is the free, year-round assistance Tax-Aide offers via the Web which allows taxpayers to pose questions to online volunteers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.