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Lending a Helping Hand During Tax Season

Volunteers with AARP Foundation's Tax-Aide program share their stories

A stop watch with the words tax time in red

AARP/Getty Images

Bob Edwards:

On today's show, our guests discuss a program that's been helping older adults with their taxes since 1958.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

They're able, through this tax preparation, to have access to their refund or to their earned income tax credit. That's a lifeline for individuals who are some days making a decision between paying their rent, keeping the lights on, or buying their food.

Bob Edwards:

Hi, I'm Bob Edwards with An AARP Take on Today. For the last 65 years, April 15th has been tax day in the US, for better if you're getting a refund, for worse if you owe. For those who want assistance filing their taxes, there are plenty of services available to lend a hand. Some prefer to go online, but many want to get help in person. For more than half a century, AARP Foundation Tax-Aide has helped tens of millions of low and moderate income Americans file their taxes free of charge.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

It is the largest free and the fourth largest tax preparation service overall in the United States.

Bob Edwards:

That's the president of AARP Foundation, Lisa Marsh Ryerson.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

Our staff would tell you that they are supporting over 35,000 volunteers who are the fuel who run the program in 5,000 communities and sites nationwide.

Bob Edwards:

We sat down with a Tax-Aide volunteer who also happens to be a senior editor for AARP The Magazine, George Mannes.

George Mannes:

I got the idea in my head that I wanted to volunteer for Tax-Aide mostly because I have spent about 20 years either writing or editing about personal finance. This was an opportunity for me to actually meet the people that I'm writing for and really get an up close look at their finances and help them.

Bob Edwards:

Mannes wrote an article about his experience, it's called AARP Tax-Aide Volunteer Shares Lessons Learned Preparing Your Returns. And you can find it on aarp.org.

George Mannes:

I went into this with absolutely no idea of what to expect. The training program that I went through was essentially two pretty long Saturdays of going through the procedure, doing people's taxes, learning about the software that we use, learning about standard issues and problems that come up, like how to deal with the earned income tax credit or what to do about Affordable Care Act issues.

Bob Edwards:

Upon completing the course, volunteers who become tax preparers actually receive an IRS certification.

George Mannes:

To actually be able to do other people's taxes, I also had to pass a test and do well enough on the test in various different areas to indicate that I was good enough to do people's taxes.

Bob Edwards:

However, not all volunteers have to become tax preparers.

George Mannes:

My fellow volunteers were pretty much a cross-section of New York City. There were people who had jobs, there were retirees, people of different ethnic backgrounds, people who spoke different languages.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

You can greet clients and talk with them and help them organize their paperwork as they're waiting to meet with their volunteer tax preparer. You could serve as an interpreter at the site and we have a number of individuals and we always need more who are helping us set up those sites.

George Mannes:

Not everybody was a math or finance nerd or personal finance editor such as myself.

Bob Edwards:

One thing that surprised Mannes was just how much help people needed.

George Mannes:

It was very eyeopening for me to do this. One of the basic things I learned is that people sometimes just don't know a lot about finances and they're very fearful of anything involving finances. To give you one example, I think there were two people that I spoke to where I said that they would be getting, let's say $1,000 refund and they didn't understand that refund meant that they would be getting money as opposed to them having to pay $2,000 more to the government. Nearly everybody got a refund.

Bob Edwards:

Though everyone is free to use Tax-Aide, the program is especially helpful to low and moderate income taxpayers.

George Mannes:

I have to be very conscious of how many people are living close to the edge. For example, there was one really cheerful young woman that I met and she made maybe $8,000 as a cashier and very cheerfully told me that she was the only person in her household who had a job, that she was supporting two brothers and her mother who was caring for one of her brothers who had special needs. I was really impressed by her. It just really drove home the idea to me of of how tough people have it in life financially.

Bob Edwards:

There's almost nothing more personal than sharing information about your household finances, dependence, or deductions, especially with the tech service or someone you don't know.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

We do not share a taxpayer's information with anyone except as is necessary to file your tax returns or as otherwise required by law. Remember that the volunteers also are receiving ongoing training and support every year and committing to re-certification on an annual basis so that they're up to date on the latest changes.

George Mannes:

The importance of privacy is beat into our heads very deeply and very quickly, that all the information that you get doesn't go any farther than your brain. Don't let anybody leave their documents at your desk. If they bring in their tax returns and then they want to head out to the bathroom, make them take their tax return with them because if they leave or something happens or whatever, you're stuck with that and you don't want to be responsible for that. You want them to be holding onto their information as much as possible.

Bob Edwards:

If you're considering the program, it's best to do your homework and know what documents you should bring with you.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

It's important to bring your social security card or your individual taxpayer identification number, a government issued ID, your last year's tax return, and your income statements.

Bob Edwards:

We'll include a link to a checklist in the show notes.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

And also do not forget to bring your savings and checking account information because remember, if you are eligible for a refund, tax preparation time is a great time to start or build your savings habit.

Bob Edwards:

As a tax preparer, George was happiest when filers would bring in the proper paperwork.

George Mannes:

One of the edicts that is written in stone is that if there is anybody on your tax return who is a dependent, whom you are declaring as a dependent, we need to see that person's original social security card, not a copy. It's got to be the original social security card. In one case, we needed to see it even though the dependent was dead. The dependent had died during the past year, but for that person, the taxpayer was allowed to declare that person as a dependent for the whole year. That person, we need to see the original social security card of anybody who is a dependent.

If you don't have that original social security card with you when you come in to get your taxes done, we can't let you put that person on your tax return as a dependent. That can mean thousands of dollars, or more likely what it means is a lot of inconvenience for you because you got to go home and then come back the next day Tax-Aide is open so that we can do your tax return then.

Bob Edwards:

All in all, what did Mannes learn from handling people's taxes?

George Mannes:

I did around four dozen tax returns. One of the other things I noticed was that people are really afraid of their taxes.

Bob Edwards:

Well, what else is new?

George Mannes:

I went into this thinking I'm going to really learn about the people that I am writing for. This is going to be an educational experience for me, but I was really, really, really surprised at how much I just enjoyed it. You're meeting lots of really nice people who live in some cases pretty tough lives and you're able to help them out. It's sort of like being like a game show host at the end where you give out the prizes because you can turn to somebody and say you're getting a $400 refund and they're really happy about that and it doesn't cost me anything and it doesn't cost them anything to learn this.

What I want to tell people is really in most cases, most people, your taxes are pretty simple. If you lead a simple life, your taxes are pretty simple. If you have got one job, if you've got two jobs and they're withholding your money, there's not a lot of places where you can go wrong. It's not complicated for most people.

Bob Edwards:

That was Lisa Marsh Ryerson and George Mannes. You can find the article Mannes wrote in our show notes. For more information about the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide Program, visit aarp.org/taxaide with an E. Thank you to our news team, producer Colby Nelson, assistant producer Danny Alarcon, production assistant Brigid Lowney, engineer Julio Gonzalez, writer Jill Higgs, executive producer Jason Young, and of course my cohosts, Wilma Consul, and Mike Ellison. Become a subscriber on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, and other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well. For An AARP Take on Today, I'm Bob Edwards. Thanks for listening.

Let’s talk taxes. Tune in to this week’s episode to learn all about the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program — and what it’s like to be a volunteer tax preparer. 

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