For many people, filing income tax returns provokes stress, anxiety and dread. Not so for Phyllis Sonnenschein, a retired high school science teacher from Natick.
For the past several years, Sonnenschein, 74, has gotten free tax preparation help from AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteers at the Natick Senior Center.
"It's a wonderful service," she said. "I actually look forward to it."
During tax season, an army of 600 trained AARP volunteers across Massachusetts will help low- and moderate-income residents, with a particular focus on those 60 and older, file their state and federal returns. There is no charge.
The volunteers are part of a nationwide program launched in 1968 that now serves 2.6 million taxpayers annually. Run in cooperation with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), it is the largest free volunteer tax prep program in the country.
Clients are asked to bring last year's tax returns; forms related to income from employment, pensions, annuities, Social Security, dividends or other sources; and canceled checks or other paperwork showing payment of state or federal taxes.
Sessions take an hour
"We do the taxes on the spot, and it takes about an hour," said Tom Ligon, volunteer state coordinator for Tax-Aide. "People are very grateful."
Ligon, 76, of Wayland, became a Tax-Aide counselor eight years ago. A retired engineer, he was looking for volunteer work that was "useful and stimulating." Having always prepared his own taxes, he thought the Tax-Aide program would be a good fit. He finds deep satisfaction in helping people, especially when he saves them money.
"It's frightening for people if they don't know whether they will owe money, and if they do, whether they will have the money to pay their taxes or buy food," Ligon said. "One of the best feelings is when someone comes in and they didn't realize they were eligible for a refund."
In 2012, more than 39,000 Massachusetts residents got help from Tax-Aide volunteers.
"Taxes are one of the inevitable things in life, so there is a strong demand for help," said Linda F. Fitzgerald, AARP Massachusetts state president. "For many people, doing taxes can be overwhelming."
The program runs from Feb. 1 until the tax deadline, which is April 16 in Massachusetts this year because of the Patriots' Day holiday. Federal returns are due April 15.
Each year, the volunteer tax counselors participate in mandatory training and must pass an exam for IRS certification. They meet with clients at community centers, libraries or other public places.
Their work is checked by another counselor before the returns are filed.
"It's well-structured, and there are a lot of good resources," said Marty Maffeo, 64, of Natick, who began volunteering with the Tax-Aide program four years ago after retiring as an account executive for an investment firm.
Help finding tax credits
Maffeo said an important part of the job is helping eligible residents apply for the state's Senior Circuit Breaker Tax Credit for homeowners and renters age 65 and older who meet certain income and other eligibility requirements.
The credit can be substantial: For 2012 it was a maximum of $1,000 per year, and it can be applied retroactively for up to three years.
Sonnenschein said she was aware of the circuit breaker credit but hadn't applied for it until a Tax-Aide counselor helped her.
She had always prepared her own returns until she realized it was taking her longer to complete them, and her confidence was ebbing. It was then that she decided to turn to the Tax-Aide program.
For the past few years, a Tax-Aide volunteer has helped Sonnenschein file the returns electronically. She loves the convenience.
"I don't have to wait in line to mail my returns," she said.
To find a site or make an appointment with a volunteer tax preparer, enter your ZIP code at the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide Locator website or call 888-227-7669 toll-free.
Jill Gambon is a writer living in West Newbury, Mass.