Ed Lancello, 78, of Fridley, relies on trained volunteers with AARP Foundation Tax-Aide to help him and his wife file their taxes every year. Photo by Courtney Perry

By Pamela Schmid

• Ed Lancello never plans to prepare his own taxes again, nor does he intend to pay someone else to do it.

“Why on earth would you pay somebody when you can get it done for free?” said the 78-year-old retiree from Fridley.

For the past 10 years, Lancello and his wife, Margaret, 79, have relied on AARP Foundation Tax-Aide for free tax preparation help.

Although primarily geared toward taxpayers 60 and older, Tax-Aide is available to all low- and moderate-income Minnesotans. Tax-Aide volunteers are available at about 200 sites such as libraries, senior centers, churches and the Mall of America. Some sites schedule appointments; others operate on a first-come, first-served basis.

To find a Tax-Aide site or to schedule an appointment, call 888-227-7669 toll-free or go to aarp.org/findtaxhelp.

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.

Tax-Aide volunteers offer information about possible credits and deductions. For instance, Minnesota homeowners and renters, including many whose incomes are so low they don’t have to file a state tax return, often qualify for a state property tax refund.

“A lot of seniors may not realize, if they’re lower income, that they have a refund coming,” said Bob St. Marie, 73, of Albany, the Tax-Aide coordinator for northern Minnesota. “Even if you’re a renter, and you don’t own property,” he said, a property tax refund might be available.

In northern Minnesota, St. Marie said, nearly 10,000 more state returns than federal returns were filed through the Tax-Aide program in 2012. That difference, he said, was mainly due to the number of Minnesotans whose incomes fell below the filing threshold yet still qualified for property tax refunds.

Because property tax statements typically aren’t mailed out before late March in Minnesota, many Tax-Aide sites are open through the summer, St. Marie said.

 Tax-Aide counselors are certified by the IRS and must pass three exams and an ethics test each year. All returns are double-checked by a second volunteer before they are filed.

Tax-Aide volunteers helped more than 125,000 Minnesotans last year. The filers got nearly $49 million in refunds.

“Many [taxpayers] come back,” said Judy LaBrosse, 71, of Fridley, who will become the program coordinator for southern Minnesota this summer. “Probably 60 or 70 percent are repeats.”

The program’s volunteers span a wide variety of careers and backgrounds. For instance, LaBrosse is a retired IRS manager. St. Marie is a retired high school math teacher. Other counselors have worked as bankers and tax preparers.

After Blaine resident Jim Maderich, 61, retired on disability in 1999 from his job as a locomotive engineer, he searched for a volunteer opportunity “that would afford me a challenge as rewarding as my job was.” Volunteering at Tax-Aide, he said, fit the bill.

Letting a certified counselor help with taxes brings peace of mind, say both taxpayers and volunteers. Older Minnesotans often don’t have computers or might have a condition such as arthritis that makes using one difficult.

 ”Most clients that I deal with find taxes to be intimidating and daunting,” Maderich said. “They’re afraid of making an error and having the tax entities come down upon them.”

Often, he said, people visit Tax-Aide for the first time because they have a new tax implication they’re unsure how to handle. “After that, they come in year after year. They say, ‘We can’t keep up with the law, but we know you can.’ ”

Nearly all returns are filed electronically, and taxpayers can receive refunds directly into their bank account.

 “Doing your taxes is not a pleasant job,” Lancello said. “The great thing about this senior AARP program is [that the volunteers] like doing it. They take training, they show up on time, they’re patient, and they’re great.”
Pamela Schmid is a writer living in St. Paul, Minn.

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