By Alan Greenblatt
This time of year, lots of people want to prepare your taxes for a fee. But there’s an alternative: AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide program, with volunteers helping file your state and federal returns for no cost.
“You hate to hear about some senior citizen going to pay $150—or sometimes more than $150—for a two-page tax return,” said Wendell Shaffer, 77, a former accountant and oil business manager. He has been a Tax-Aide volunteer for 23 years and works in Lee’s Summit, just outside Kansas City.
Volunteer preparers assist more than 2.6 million people a year nationwide, including more than 70,000 in Missouri. All services—from calculating returns to filing them electronically—are free.
You can have your taxes done at about 120 sites around Missouri. Check aarp.org/findtaxhelp or call 888-227-7669 toll-free for locations. Appointments are strongly recommended to avoid waits. While anyone is welcome, Tax-Aide is geared toward those 50 and older.
The National Society of Accountants estimates that the average person with itemized deductions who paid to have tax returns handled professionally in 2015 spent $273. Missouri residents using the Tax-Aide program will save about $10 million per year just on fees, said Bob Juergens, 73, the program’s state coordinator, who lives in St. Louis.
Many of those who use the service are living on low or fixed incomes. They might not be able to afford to pay to have their taxes done. And the preparers are able to guide state residents to about $30 million worth of refunds annually.
Residents often come to Tax-Aide with a sense of dread, “what they perceive as this ominous responsibility of filing their taxes,” said Bill Stowers, a former Boeing executive who prepares taxes in St. Louis.
“When you sit across the table from your clients, you see the gratitude that they have, and there’s nothing in my mind that’s more rewarding,” said Stowers, 69.
The preparers undergo training and IRS certification each year. They have to remember all the steps from previous years and are brought up to speed on the latest changes in the tax code, such as complications brought about by the Affordable Care Act.
Low error rate
Mary Straub, 64, a retired software developer, used to help her mother complete her taxes each year. Now, she spends a couple of mornings each week at a senior center in south St. Louis County, helping people with low or fixed incomes.
“The people in my particular group, they really don’t want to be bothered with the whole thing, and they trust us,” she said.
Each return is double-checked by a second preparer. The result is an error rate of well under 1 percent. If there is any sort of problem, such as a letter from the IRS stating that the taxpayer forgot to include a source of income, the volunteers will help sort it out.
The program can assist almost any taxpayer. Unless you happen to fall within one of a few categories—if you farm or own rental property, for example—someone will be able to help you. There is no age limit.
When you show up for your appointment, you’ll need to bring last year’s returns and any documents related to income, such as W-2 and 1099 forms, and bank or broker’s statements, along with a photo ID for each taxpayer and documentation for everyone on the return. The full list is at aarp.org/taxdocs.
Repeat customers are welcome. Volunteers say they look forward to seeing familiar faces year after year. Clients are consistently grateful for the help, Stowers said.
That can be gratifying, and it’s one reason why volunteers often participate for years. But the important thing is that people seeking help sorting through a complicated and annoying part of life walk away satisfied, Stowers said.
“It’s not making you feel good; it’s making them feel good,” he said. “They are fulfilling their responsibility as citizens.”
Alan Greenblatt is a writer living in St. Louis.