By Tom Ferraro
Sheila Maddox has always been good with numbers and people. So good, that as a young woman, she took a tax preparation course so she could do her own taxes and help her parents, siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews and friends do theirs.
During each of the past several years, Maddox, 68, has also been helping hundreds of fellow retirees at two Baltimore senior centers file their taxes.
“I wouldn’t say I enjoy it; I’d say it’s a challenge and that I like to keep my mind sharp,” said Maddox, who plies her skills as a volunteer for AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, the nation’s largest free and volunteer-run tax preparation and assistance program.
This massive operation began in 1968 with four volunteers who prepared about 100 returns at one site. Today, roughly 35,000 trained volunteers help more than 2.6 million taxpayers file their taxes. Tax-Aide is open to anyone, even non-AARP members, though it gives special attention to low- and moderate-income people 50 and older.
In Maryland last year, more than 700 Tax-Aide volunteers—including preparers, schedulers and greeters—helped more than 42,000 people at 134 sites. Go to aarp.org/findtaxhelp or call 888-227-7669 toll-free to find a site near you.
This tax preparation army is made up primarily of retirees. They include former government workers, accountants, lawyers, business executives, journalists and even some professional tax preparers. All preparers are IRS-certified. Sites are easily accessible and include retirement homes, libraries and community centers.
“Tax-Aide’s purpose is to relieve the anxiety and stress of the tax filing process for retired and low-income citizens,” Maddox said. “The volunteers are there to address their concerns.”
Maddox, who worked for the Social Security Administration for 37 years calculating benefits, noted that most clients in her area are low-income retirees. “They can’t afford the $100 [commercial preparation fee] for a short form. A long form could cost a couple of hundred dollars. They are overwhelmed when they find out we are here to help them.”
What to bring
Taxpayers need to bring several things to a Tax-Aide session, including a photo ID for everyone filing the return and documentation for any others listed; last year’s tax return; and income information including W-2 and 1099 forms for wages, Social Security benefits, pensions, dividends, interest and annuities. You’ll also need proof of health insurance to meet requirements of the Affordable Care Act. For a full list of necessary documents, go to aarp.org/taxdocs.
In Montgomery County, Tax-Aide partners with the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), one of the nation’s oldest and largest volunteer service programs for people 55 and over.
“Our volunteers all go through extensive training,” said Gretchen Zekiel, an RSVP manager. “It is not easy. But there is a real feel-good aspect about it.”
Anne Gavin, 65, a retired consultant and a self-described “numbers nerd,” is in her fifth year with Tax-Aide. She prepares tax returns while also serving as site chief at the new Silver Spring library. She said people use Tax-Aide “because the tax code is confusing, and they need help and they trust us.”
Gavin recalled that a woman whose late husband had handled her taxes came in with her adult daughter. “They didn’t know where to start. Our counselor helped them figure out what documents they needed,” she said.
Deloris Rowland, 80, a retired social worker now living in Silver Spring, has been a Tax-Aide client for the past decade.
“You get to know them, and they get to know you,” she said. “They are just as thorough as professional tax preparers.”
Back in Baltimore, Maddox noted that many of her customers grumble about having to pay taxes but seem happy with Tax-Aide. “Every year, they come back, and every year, there seems to be more of them,” she said.
Tom Ferraro is a writer living in Davidsonville, Md.