My Life as a Volunteer Tax Preparer – Week 3
Today was my third weekly session as a volunteer tax preparer. I met more interesting people with yet more interesting hard truth stories involving the intersections of their money with their lives. That being the case, I thought I would continue to share them with you.
The first appointment was perhaps the most unique, starting with the fact that she was an hour late, causing me to have to squeeze her in between two other scheduled appointments. She was in her early sixties and receiving Social Security disability. I couldn’t determine what her disability was and she didn’t say. All I know is that her adult daughter was fanning her the entire time she was in the office, as if her mother would keel over at any moment from some unknown malady. Or it could have been a show put on for me. Maybe she was concerned I would report her health to someone. I think she did have at least one thing wrong with her: stress.
As I began her tax return, she told me that she was renting a house which she shared with her adult son and two grandchildren. On top of that, she said she was the only person in that household with income. That came as a surprise considering her limited disability income, supplemented with a small pension she inherited from her mother. What really struck me was that her adult son (and father of the grandchildren) showed up half-way through the appointment. He was a large, seemingly healthy man. Apparently the part about his disabled Mom supporting him and his children was true because the reason he interrupted our session was to borrow $10 from his mother. Unbelievable.
The other aspect of this woman’s financial life that surprised me was that she brought in a form W2G, i.e., to report gambling winnings. Of course she told me that her losses easily exceeded her winnings. What is it with folks who are living barely above the poverty line, supporting three other family members on disability, hanging out at a casino? I suppose that whatever drives this behavior is similar to that which sustains the purchase of lottery tickets by the poorest of the poor. Incidentally, she was married but not living with or being supported by her husband. Where was that guy I wondered? I kept my mouth shut on that one.
Like last week, only one of my six appointments this week was a married couple. He was on Social Security and a small pension. She was too young to claim Social Security but did not work. The husband worked part time as a security guard at a local historical site. I suppressed a laugh when I heard that because from looking at him, anyone over the age of 8 probably could have either outrun him or beat him up. His wife didn’t want him to work but he told me that he worked more to stay busy than for the money. Once again, this couple did not have much income but didn’t need much, in part because they owned their home, mortgage free.
I had one appointment with a divorced woman about my age. She had one adult son the same age as our oldest son, but beyond that the stories could not have been more different. She was a school teacher making a nice salary and provided most of the support for her son. Yet she could not claim him as a dependent because she was unable to confirm his income to me. I suggested that she call him. She tried but her son could not take the call because he was meeting with his probation officer! She told me that both her son and ex-husband suffered from manic-depression and had violently explosive tendencies. I said a little prayer of thanks and gratitude after that appointment.
One of my appointments almost caused me to invoke my Mr. ToughMoneyLove personality. As I was greeting this retired woman, I routinely asked her if she had filled out the taxpayer interview sheet that the receptionist had given her. The volunteers use these sheets to guide our interviews of the taxpayers and the selection of the right forms to use in preparing the return. In response to my question, she launched into a tirade about having to fill out a form that no one uses anyway. I explained to her calmly that we (the unpaid volunteers) did in fact use the forms in preparing the return. She said that couldn’t be true because she had seen them thrown away. I told her that indeed we discarded (shredded actually) the forms after the return was finished but I assured her that I would read it first and rely on it. So she stomped out to fill out the form. One of the other taxpayers who was waiting her turn (and heard all of this) asked in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear: “I wonder if she throws her newspaper away after she reads it?” I had to chuckle because that is the kind of remark Mr. ToughMoneyLove would make. The irate taxpayer calmed down and I completed her return without a problem. She was pleased to hear that she was receiving a nice refund. Funny how money can change a mood like that.
Speaking of refunds, once again of my six appointments today, only one (the school teacher) paid any income tax at all, and two of them received a refundable credit over and above their zero tax liability. As our government continues to implement and increase these different refundable tax credits, we are going to see more of this. I’m not so sure it’s a great idea to have so many Americans who are completely dis-invested from the national budget.
Finally, I had to call one of my appointments from last week to tell him that his return had been flagged because he under-reported the amount of his 2008 stimulus payment. This came about when I told him during our session that he owed the IRS $50 in taxes. He then “remembered” that he received a stimulus payment of only $300, not $600. That changed the final number from a payment to a $250 refund. Busted.
So what were the big picture lessons I learned today? First, you can learn an awful lot about people and their families in a short period of time, just by talking about their finances. It’s amazing how forthcoming people are in a setting like that – sharing stuff with me, a complete stranger. For some – the woman with the manic-depressive son for example – it seems like it is therapeutic for them to talk about it. Second, there is still a lot of adult family interdependence and exploitation going on out there. I am relieved that I am not a divorce lawyer. I’m not sure I could stand the hard truth overload that would bring.
I hope you are finding this experience as interesting as I am. Please share your thoughts.