Alan Siegel likes solving puzzles. He’s been doing crossword puzzles for years, and he recently started creating them. “This was my first one. It was created jointly with a mentor and published in the Long Island newspaper Newsday, which syndicates in papers across the U.S. I have a solo puzzle that’s been accepted by The New York Times, but it hasn’t been published yet.”
Alan found a way to put his puzzle-solving skills to use volunteering with AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, which provides in-person and virtual tax preparation help to anyone, free of charge, with a special focus on taxpayers who are over 50 and have low to moderate income.
He learned about AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide program from a friend, more than a decade before he was ready to be a volunteer. “He said it was a really good experience for him, and I just tucked it away for when I retired myself.” When he did, a post by a Tax-Aide representative on his local Nextdoor listserv jogged his memory. He responded to the request for volunteers, participated in the training, and spent that tax season and the next preparing returns twice a week at the senior center in Torrance, California.
His only prior experience with taxes was preparing his own, using a popular computer software. “My own and for my kids,” he says. “But the tax situations that we handle within Tax-Aide are very different from what I was used to, and learning all of the intricacies of the IRS codes, especially for low-income taxpayers, was really a lot to learn.”
When the pandemic hit, the program had to change significantly to adapt. Staff did their best to provide low- or no-contact services, but it wasn’t ideal. Attachments had to be opened and documents printed and scanned, causing technical headaches. “Given the age of our population and the technological sophistication, this was tough,” he says. “A lot of potential Tax-Aide clients read the 14 attachments that we sent and just threw up their hands and said, ‘Nah, it’s too complicated. I’m going to do something else.’”
He got through the season, but Alan much prefers working directly with people, especially given the difference this kind of help can make to someone who’s living on a fixed income. “We had a couple come in who were taking care of one of their elderly mothers in their own home, getting paid through a state Medicaid waiver program,” he explains. The couple had had to pay a lot of tax the previous year when they used a professional tax preparer. The return Alan helped them prepare, however, showed they were owed a large refund instead. It was a puzzle, but Alan solved it.
“I looked at it and I said, ‘I’m not an expert on this, but I think your past year’s preparer made a grave error.’” Alan offered to file an amended return for them, and it turned out they were owed close to $4,000.
“They were just floored. Very appreciative,” he says. “We felt good that day.”
Another client had not filed a tax return in three years. “We were able to get him a refund for the current year and he asked, ‘Is it too late for my prior years?’ We said ‘no’ and filed all those tax returns as well. When we showed him how much he was going to get as a refund for each of those years, he was astounded because he thought that once the deadline passed you couldn’t file. So that was rewarding.”
All in all, Alan says, “it’s been a really eye-opening and rewarding volunteer experience for me to see people from all different walks of life. I’ve had a chance to talk to them about their life, talk to them about their jobs. I’m counseling my children to save more in 401(k)s and IRAs after seeing what some people are living on in the city of L.A. For many people it’s difficult for them to make ends meet.”
Alan wants people to know that although the U.S. tax code is extremely long and complicated for those who aren’t trained in it, most of the returns Tax-Aide prepares are very simple. “People are so afraid of making a mistake. It’s just so intimidating and it really doesn’t have to be. We’re providing a great service to people.”