For Carol McClusky, 64, the long-dreaded chore of collecting paperwork and filling out income tax forms has taken a turn for the better.
"I used to panic to go back a year and match up forms, but now it's very peaceful," the grandmother of five said.
McClusky attributes her peace of mind to AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, a free program that helps seniors and low- to moderate-income taxpayers do their taxes.
By close of business on Tax Day — this year extended to April 18 — AARP Foundation Tax-Aide will have helped McClusky and an estimated 2.5 million other taxpayers navigate complicated tax codes, ensure proper credits and deductions and file their returns to the Internal Revenue Service and state and local tax agencies.
Established in 1968 with four volunteers, the AARP Foundation program has blossomed into a national program with about 35,000 volunteers, each one trained by AARP and certified by the IRS. Last year, the volunteers helped users get refunds totaling $1.2 billion and earned income tax credits totaling $233 million.
The program is one of AARP's largest service activities, with people signing up as future volunteers year-round.
Typical of the program's 6,500 sites in all 50 states and the District of Columbia is the Blount County Public Library in Maryville, Tenn.
A few weeks ago, McClusky lugged her bundle of papers into the brand-new red-brick library. Beyond a big sign declaring "AARP Tax-Aide," a greeter checked her in, made sure she had all the documents she'd need, then introduced her to the volunteer who would be working with her.
The volunteer — wearing an official AARP Tax-Aide button-down denim shirt — sat down with her at a long table in a community room. Privacy screens helped ensure that the discussion remained confidential.
Together the two pored over her year's worth of receipts, forms and other materials. Her income and other numbers were typed into a laptop computer running special tax software. A short while later, McClusky's completed 2010 return was filed electronically, traveling in security-encoded form over the Internet from the Maryville library to the IRS.
Whew! My taxes are done
"For me, it's a big relief and a great offering," she said. "If I didn't go here, I'd have to go to a tax service, so the savings really helps."
Among the volunteers at the library that day was 90-year-old Jim Keeble, a former accountant who has volunteered with AARP Foundation Tax-Aide for 29 years. "The best part about this is being able to be of some help to somebody who's lost and doesn't know what to do," said Keeble, who's also active at his retirement facility and church.
In this work, you've got to be on your toes — there are "pressures," he said. "You've got to be up to date and be able to work in the community with a lot of different people."
The pressures Keeble mentioned include a rigorous training process. Every year, each volunteer must complete three to five days of classroom instruction (the length depends on prior experience in the program). Each must pass an IRS certification exam.
"Tax-Aide is one of our key national partners," said Michael McBride, acting director, headquarters operations, of the IRS's Stakeholder Partnerships, Education and Communication programs. With the largest number of volunteers among the free services, Tax-Aide generates 1.5 million returns.
In addition to volunteer certification, the IRS provides tax preparation software, lends computers and printers and helps fund operations with cash grants.
Like the one at the Blount County library, most AARP Foundation Tax-Aide sites run by appointment only, although some accept walk-ins. Hours vary by site. A typical appointment takes from 30 to 40 minutes, but can be longer if the return is complex. (Occasionally, a return will be deemed too complicated to handle, with the taxpayer being advised to seek services elsewhere.) This year, the Maryville site and all others in the program included a volunteer to recheck the work of the preparer.
A service for younger people, too
It's not only older people who benefit from the free assistance. Brad and Carla Sellers, a married couple in their 30s, used AARP Foundation Tax-Aide for the first time this year.
"Last year, we paid to have our taxes done," Carla Sellers said. "When we got our check, they had to take their money out." So when they learned about AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, they decided to give it a shot.
"They're very respectful here. We were a little nervous, but we'll be back," Carla Sellers said.
Volunteers said the couple's attitude and experience were typical of first-time users, many of whom doubt the service is free. That reluctance is understandable, according to a local volunteer coordinator, Tom Hendrix. "Everybody hears about the IRS and the horror stories," Hendrix said. "We just put their mind at ease."
Hendrix, who has been a volunteer for 18 years, says the two groups that AARP Foundation Tax-Aide helps, older people and those on limited incomes, can be particularly vulnerable to scams. It's important, he said, to create the right environment for first-time users or for people who are simply stopping in to learn more about the program.
It's a lot of work, but he's happy to do it. In the end, he said, it's fun saving money for people.
Angela Bryant Starke is a writer in Tennessee.