Judy and George Owens, of Chambersburg, discovered that relying on volunteers with  AARP Foundation Tax-Aide to file their taxes is ‘quite a relief.’ Photo by Matt Roth

By Hilary Appelman

• Judy Owens’ husband always prepared the Chambersburg couple’s tax returns. But when he started getting confused while filling out their returns two years ago, she turned to AARP Foundation Tax-Aide for help.

“They took me under their wing,” said Owens, 71. “They are very thorough. They don’t just do your taxes, they check and they recheck, so you know when it goes in, it’s right.”

Not having to worry about their taxes is an enormous relief, Owens said. “I know at least one thing in our life is going to be done right.”

The free service is aimed at low- and moderate-income people 60 and older, but others are welcomed as well, said Roger Burbrink, 66, a retired Navy captain who oversees about 75 volunteers at 11 sites in Chester County.

“We have no limits on ages or income levels,” he said. “We do taxes for [almost] everybody.”

Volunteers fill out federal, state and local tax forms unless the finances are too complex. (Tax-Aide can’t help file returns for people with farm income, who are landlords or who operate a business with employees.)

To find a Tax-Aide site or to make an appointment, go to aarp.org/findtaxhelp or call toll-free 888-227-7669. Most sites will be open until the April 15 filing deadline. Some sites operate on an appointment basis; others are first-come, first-served.

Taxpayers are asked to bring:

  • Their 2011 tax return.
  • A government-issued ID.
  •  Social Security cards or other official documents for everyone on the return.
  • All income information, including W-2 forms and 1099 forms showing income from Social Security, interest, dividends, property sales, pensions and annuities.
  • Bank account and bank routing numbers to enable refunds to be deposited directly.
  • Receipts or canceled checks for possible deductions, such as property tax payments and charitable contributions.

 In Pennsylvania about 300 Tax-Aide sites operate in churches, community centers, libraries and community colleges. Last year about 1,400 Tax-Aide volunteers helped file returns for nearly 116,000 taxpayers. Each return is reviewed for accuracy by a second volunteer before it is filed.

Tax-Aide volunteers go through training and must pass annual IRS certification and ethics tests. The volunteer preparers keep up with changes in state and federal tax laws and make sure taxpayers take advantage of available credits.

“We sometimes pick up things that the paid preparers miss,” said Beverly Woodell, 74, of Clearfield, the Tax-Aide coordinator for western Pennsylvania.

Because of the depressed economy, Woodell said, she sees more taxpayers who are continuing to work after they turn 65. Some don’t know they may still qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit if they have a grandchild or disabled adult child living at home.

Volunteer preparers also make sure eligible taxpayers know about Pennsylvania’s Tax Forgiveness program, which exempts people with income below certain levels from paying state income tax.

The volunteers also complete applications for Pennsylvania’s Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program, which gives rebates to taxpayers who meet age and income requirements.

Bill Campbell, 81, a retired Westinghouse engineer from Pleasant Hills who has been a Tax-Aide volunteer since 1984, said some taxpayers don’t realize they are eligible for the federal Saver’s Credit, which gives a credit to low- and moderate-income taxpayers for contributions to retirement savings plans.

Tax-Aide volunteers determined that Hilda Lengfellner, 88, and her husband, Joseph, of Clearfield, had enough medical expenses that they could save money by itemizing their deductions. Joseph, 86, a retired railroad worker, estimated that saved the couple several hundred dollars a year.

“They know things that we don’t know, that’s for sure,” he said. “I have a lot of faith in them.”

Eleanor Begley, 80, said Tax-Aide volunteers were more helpful than the paid preparers who had charged her several hundred dollars a year.

“They don’t rush you,” the Havertown resident said. “They take their time; they answer any questions you have.”

Taking time to listen to taxpayers is an important part of Tax-Aide, said Roger Schwalm of Chambersburg, 70, a retired security specialist who has been a volunteer for 13 years. “You spend as much time as necessary,” he said. “If you can’t answer the question, you get someone else who can. But you never send the client away guessing.”

Hilary Appelman is a writer living in State College, Pa.