By Keryn Thompson-Kolar • For many Americans, there are few things more taxing than preparing to file their annual income tax returns.
"It's a shame that something every American citizen has to do is so complicated," said Bob Crews, 67, of Canton.
As the Michigan coordinator for AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, Crews oversees a group of more than 1,000 volunteers who help ease that burden for thousands of taxpayers at no charge.
In 2012, Tax-Aide volunteers served more than 75,000 people at 184 sites throughout Michigan. Those taxpayers received city, state and federal refunds totaling more than $26 million. This year, organizers hope to help even more clients.
Begun in 1968, Tax-Aide now serves about 2.6 million taxpayers annually. Run in cooperation with the IRS, it is the nation's largest free volunteer tax prep program.
Although the program is geared to help low- to moderate-income seniors, there are no age or income restrictions. "Six to seven years ago, most of our clientele were senior-aged, retired persons," Crews said. "But others would call, and word of mouth spread" about the service.
Leadership training began in October for the program's computer specialists and the instructors who will train the volunteer tax preparers. The volunteer preparers will get roughly 35 to 50 hours of training.
"All tax preparers are required to attend training and pass the IRS certification test annually," Crews said, pointing out that even seasoned volunteers need to review tax law and administrative changes, as well as standards of conduct.
Jim Gonzales, a retired Detroit police officer, served as a Tax-Aide volunteer in the Downriver area for five years. "It's a good program, and … it's getting even more efficient," he said, noting that the speed and convenience of e-filing for most returns has replaced the collecting and mailing of paper returns.
"People from all walks of life volunteer," said Gonzales, 69, of Allen Park. "I've met retired engineers, a couple nurses, an airline pilot. I was really impressed with what these people did … They're trained well."
A typical session with a tax preparer takes 60 to 90 minutes. Most sites see clients by appointment only, but a few take walk-ins.
Clients are asked to bring last year's tax returns; forms related to income from employment, pensions, annuities, Social Security, dividends or other sources; and canceled checks or other paperwork showing payment of state or federal taxes.
Sites will be open Feb. 1 through April 15.
The IRS provides about 25 percent of the laptops and printers used, and all of the software. Most of the equipment comes from the AARP Foundation, which started the Tax-Aide program in 1968. Community centers, libraries and churches are typical locations; each site must be able to accommodate the equipment and have enough space that clients' privacy is maintained. "Confidentiality of our taxpayers is our No. 1 priority — that, and the accuracy of our returns," Crews said.
To ensure accuracy, "every return prepared is reviewed by a second set of eyes," he said. The review system ensures that all data is entered correctly and all tax laws followed.
One of Gonzales' friends, Ray Jimenez, 75, of Taylor, took Gonzales' advice and went to Tax-Aide for help filing his returns last year.
"I was happy with the work they did," he said. "I didn't want to just drop off my paperwork at a business. I like that you sit right down with them. Those guys know what they are doing — the double-checking gave me confidence."
Now Jimenez is recommending the program to others. "I sent my granddaughter and her husband. They're brand-new at filing taxes," he said.
Jimenez also had Tax-Aide assist him in preparing tax returns for his 96-year-old mother, then brought her the completed forms to sign.
"The best part of our job is being able to help somebody who needs help, and the gratitude they show," Crews said.
To find a Tax-Aide site or make an appointment, enter your ZIP code in the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide locator or call 888-227-7669 toll-free.
Keryn Thompson-Kolar is a writer and editor living in Ann Arbor, Mich.