For years, Cathy Justice paid an accountant to prepare and file her taxes, but when she heard about a free tax preparation service offered by the AARP Foundation, she decided to give it a try.
Justice was so impressed with the service she received that she is now a regular client of the AARP Foundation's Tax-Aide program, and she hasn't paid an accountant in the past several years.
"In this world, what do you get free anymore?" asked Justice, an administrative assistant in the Henderson County Fire Marshal's Office.
Tax-Aide, a nationwide, volunteer-run tax preparation and assistance program that began in 1968, is an AARP Foundation program provided in cooperation with the Internal Revenue Service. Today, about 34,600 trained volunteers help more than 2.6 million taxpayers file their taxes annually. Tax-Aide is open to anyone, even non-AARP members, though it gives special attention to low- and moderate-income people 60 and older.
In North Carolina, about 1,200 volunteers are working in roughly 100 sites set up in shopping centers, senior centers, libraries and churches across the state through April 18, said volunteer Jim Spicer, the state director of North Carolina's Tax-Aide program. AARP North Carolina volunteers processed close to 44,500 tax returns last year and hope to process even more this year, said Spicer.
Tax-Aide's free service draws many people to the program who cannot afford to spend the $85 or more that tax preparers charge, Spicer said.
"This gives them a place to come to, and they feel confident that we know what we are doing because we are certified," Spicer said.
Volunteers undergo training and must pass a certification test administered through the IRS before they are allowed to process tax forms. Often, a new Tax-Aide volunteer will work with a veteran preparer before working independently, Spicer said. Volunteers are trained to file the standard federal and state tax forms. Those who work near the Virginia and South Carolina borders also are trained about tax laws in those states.
Justice, 48, said she has returned to Tax-Aide year after year not just because it is free, but also because the Tax-Aide volunteers are quick and thorough. The volunteers found tax credits and exemptions for Justice that the paid tax preparer never mentioned.
Margaret and James Keener of Penrose have used Tax-Aide's services for the past eight years. Before that, the couple paid a company to prepare their taxes.
"They give you a lot of time. You aren't rushed when you go in," said Keener, 81. "When you leave, it is completed. It makes it just easier. One trip will do it."
Before you go …
Here's a checklist of items taxpayers should bring with them:
- Last year's tax return.
- Social Security cards for everyone who is on the return or other official documents.
- W2s, 1099 statements that may include interest, dividends, capital gains and any stock transactions.
- Interest forms from banks, Social Security statements and anything else related to income.
- Listing of out-of-pocket medical bills paid and medical mileage records.
- Property tax statements.
- Home loan interest and tax statements.
- Charitable contributions and volunteer mileage records.
- Unemployment statements.
- Gambling winning and loss records and anything else that may refers to taxes.
Other people may need to bring in other documents, such as foreclosure papers, casualty losses, cancellation of debts and Health Savings Account records.
Spicer said most people can have their returns finished in one visit. Most can be done in one to two hours if the site takes appointments. If the site doesn't take appointments, the waiting is what takes the most time.
Natalie Gott is a freelance writer based in Chapel Hill, N.C.