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Free Help for Filing Taxes Available Feb. 1

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Paul Swanson, of Madison, spends six days a week preparing income tax returns in the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program. Photo by Narayan Mahon/ Wonderful Machine

By Dan Kurt

• Like many people, Dorothy Taylor of Madison would rather entrust her tax returns to an experienced professional than tackle them herself.

She discovered AARP Foundation Tax-Aide more than a decade ago, and the 80-year-old widow has been a loyal visitor to the free service ever since.

Tax-Aide is the nation's largest free, volunteer-run tax preparation and assistance service.

Tax-Aide volunteers are available from Feb. 1 through the mid-April filing deadline at about 140 sites throughout Wisconsin. To find a location, visit aarp.org/findtaxhelp  or call 888-227-7669 toll-free.

The program focuses on helping low- and moderate-income people, with special attention to those over age 60. No one is turned away, although Tax-Aide volunteers can’t prepare complex returns.

Tax-Aide volunteers attend training sessions each year and must pass three IRS certification tests and an ethics exam before they can assist taxpayers.

Last year about 800 Tax-Aide volunteers helped roughly 64,000 Wisconsinites get $25.8 million in refunds.

Some Tax-Aide centers take appointments, while others operate on a first-come, first-served basis.

Taxpayers are asked to bring a government-issued ID; their 2011 tax return; all W-2 and 1099 forms, including ones for employment, pension, Social Security, annuities, interest and dividend income; information on dependents; receipts or canceled checks for possible deductions, such as property tax payments and charitable contributions; and bank routing and account numbers if they want refunds deposited directly into a bank account.

While the use of computer software at most sites makes preparation faster than ever, taxpayers typically walk out with a completed state and federal return within an hour — the confidential program continues to emphasize accuracy. Each state and federal return is double-checked by a second certified tax counselor before it is filed.

As a result, volunteers often identify credits and deductions to which taxpayers didn't know they were entitled.

All too frequently, people filling out their own returns overlook potential tax breaks such as the homestead credit or deductions for large out-of-pocket medical expenses, said Tax-Aide state coordinator Paul Swanson.

For Swanson, the joy of making tax time a little less stressful for people is what keeps him coming back year after year. A retired high school math teacher who had worked part time for a tax-preparation business, he joined Tax-Aide in 1997 at the suggestion of a former colleague.

Swanson, 71, has since taken on leadership roles with the program; he's the state coordinator and site captain for Wisconsin's largest Tax-Aide location in Madison. In addition, he still spends up to six days a week preparing returns during the tax season.

Dan Kurt is a writer living in Wauwatosa, Wis .

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