First Lessons Learned as a Volunteer Tax Preparer
A few weeks ago I wrote about my decision to obtain IRS certification as a volunteer tax preparer for the VITA and TCE/AARP Tax-Aide programs. Last week was my first opportunity to meet with four people who had made appointments to receive help with their returns.
The volunteer office is at one of the government funded senior citizen centers because those that use our services (which are 100% free) are supposed to be older folks and other taxpayers with incomes under $42,000. However, they do not screen people to make sure they meet these guidelines. Anyone who comes in gets help, as long as their returns do not involve issues that we are not permitted to handle.
My first impressions of the clientele were mixed. The first appointment was with a single older woman who was living on Social Security, supplemented with a little income from Walmart. She was very sweet and appreciative of our services. It turns out that she had not paid any income taxes and did not have enough income to require her to file a return so I sent her on her way. I was impressed that she was diligent enough to even inquire about her filing obligation since she had not paid taxes anyway.
The second appointment was a different story. She also was a senior citizen, very energetic and quite well dressed under the circumstances. She plopped a big stack of papers on my desk and said that her accountant had sent them to her. That made me a little curious as to why she was seeking the help of a volunteer when she had an accountant. Before I could ask her that, she made it very clear that she was not interested in paying the accountant several hundred dollars to prepare her return as she had in the past. So I dove into her papers – I had signed up for this mission and I was going to complete it. I quickly discovered that she owned a condominium that she had bought several years ago to be a rental unit. Clearly, she was doing quite well financially but I still thought about my mission. However, I had to explain to her that we were not permitted to prepare returns that included depreciation schedules because our insurance would not cover it. That bothered her and she repeated her complaint about having to pay an accountant. She asked me to prepare the return without depreciating the property. I said that would be a mistake because she would likely pay more taxes that way and perhaps raise a red flag about her past returns. So she left, muttering about that accountant again.
The third appointment was with yet another retired single women, also with a part-time job. She also was easy to work with and grateful for someone to help her. I could not complete her return because she was missing some paperwork so she will come back this week.
The final appointment was different, and not in a good way. This was a young single man who apparently lived with his girlfriend and her daughter. He told me upfront that his girlfriend had encouraged him to file with head of household status. When I asked him if he provided support to his girlfriend or her child, he quickly said no. That made sense because with the income he reported (which included some tip income), he probably should have been homeless. I asked him if he was sure that this was his only income. He replied yes, he was just a simple man, living a simple life. I finished his return and told him that not only was he getting all of his tax refunded, he was receiving an additional earned income credit. He acted surprised but I think it was phony surprise. I asked him if he wanted his refund and credit mailed to him or direct deposited into his bank account. He said direct deposit and presented me with a check so that I could get the routing and account numbers. The check had a business name on it. He hadn’t reported any income from that business. But I had no choice but to finish the return. We are not supposed to cross-examine those who use our services. I had already asked him twice about all of his income. Sigh……
So what are my first lessons learned as a volunteer tax preparer? When it comes to money and taxes, anything goes, including at the volunteer preparer’s office. The hard truth is everywhere. Stay tuned. This could get interesting.