My Life as a Volunteer Tax Preparer – Week 5

March 5, 2009 by  
Filed under Taxes

Today was my fifth opportunity to assist mostly lower-income senior citizens with their federal income tax returns.  (I say “mostly” because one of my fellow volunteers showed me a return she prepared this week for a 20-something married (dink) couple with an $86k income.  I think if that pair had showed up at my desk I would have had to ask “Are you sure you are in the right place?”)

I was tired today because of a late return flight from LA the night before.  As I drove over to the Tax-Aide office I started to think that the interesting stories I heard in weeks 1-4 cannot continue.   Boy was I wrong.

I had five appointments with the last being a no-show just like last week.  I completed returns for two married couples and two divorced women.  Three owned homes with two of them paid for.  I love hearing that from retired folks.  The woman who was still paying on her mortgage proudly reported that she had paid her car loan off in January.  That made me smile as well.

Today was “employee loyalty to the extreme day.”  My first appointment was one of the married couples.  The husband had retired after working in the retail grocery business for 50 years.  In fact, he had worked in only two industries his entire working life, the other being the Army.  He worked as a supply clerk who traded stuff in the Army black market to bypass red-tape.  He asked me if I knew of the Radar O’Reilly character from the MASH television show.  Of course I did – who doesn’t?  He then said that as much scheming, wheeling and dealing that O’Reilly did on the show – that’s what he did in the real Army.

But here is the most amazing thing about this man’s work history.  In his 50 years in the grocery business, he had only two employers – one for ten years and the second for the last 40 years.  Can you imagine working for the same large corporation (and it was one of the biggest) for 40 years?  After I complimented him on his loyalty, he said that once you get invested in the pension benefits and such, it’s hard to leave.  Then I noticed that his pension only paid $23,000 annually.  I’m not sure about that trade-off. 

As I finished up their return, I told this couple that they would be getting a refund.  The husband commented that maybe they could use it to go out to dinner.  I then said that this was a “vacation-size” refund.  The wife chimed in with a remark about not wanting to vacation in Wyoming again.  (Hubby was from Wyoming.)  So I upped the ante by saying that this was a “vacation to Hawaii” size refund.  (It was about $3,400.)  Boy did she light-up, saying “I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii!”  Hubby seemed reluctant.  I felt I had to back-up the wife on this one so I told him that going to Hawaii should definitely be on his bucket list.  He countered with “I’d like to go to Alaska.”  So now the volunteer tax preparer is a vacation mediator.  I said that an Alaskan cruise would be nice.  The wife was pleased, as Alaska was definitely better than yet another trip back to Wyoming.  So they left, with him pretending to be grouchy about it but openly acknowledging that a vacation discussion and compromise was on the evening’s agenda.

I admire marriages that last and that continue to work like that.  I sure hope my “Hawaii” suggestion is the catalyst for a trip to the islands for this couple.  They are in their 70’s and you can’t let that bucket list hang around too long.

The second married couple was even older, 84 and 74.  The husband also had retired from the grocery business, spending his last 25 years working for the same large grocery chain.  His pension?  $8,000/year.  That was disappointing to hear.   I hesitated but gave this couple a little bonus Social Security advice.   I’ll tell you why I did.  This couple had to have been married at least 50 years.  She still carried a copy of HIS Social Security card in her wallet.  She produced it when he confessed that he didn’t know where his was.  He then asked her what she was doing with a copy of his card in her wallet.  She said “it’s been in there for as long as I can remember.  I thought you might need for me to have it one day.  Someone has to look out for you.”  

How can you not want to help a couple like that?

Anyway, I noticed that her Social Security benefit was less than half of her husband’s.  I asked if her benefit was based on her earnings or was it a spousal benefit.  She said it was based on her work history.  I then told her that she was entitled to a claim a spousal benefit that, depending on when she started receiving benefits, could be much as 50% of his benefit.  She did not know this.  So I encouraged her to call the local Social Security office and find out if she should switch to a spousal benefit.  Score one for the volunteer.

My last appointment was dominated by tales of a loving mother (my client) trying to help a financially dysfunctional daughter.  This lady was 77, divorced, and working almost full time at Walmart to supplement Social Security and a small government pension.  She came to us because she was upset that it had cost her $249 for one of the franchise tax preparers to work on her 2007 return.  I can understand why she would be upset.  I completed her return in only 35 minutes and that includes hearing the stories about her daughter.   At $249, that would be a fantastic hourly rate for a routine tax return

The stories started when this lady showed me an official-looking envelope from U.S. Bankruptcy Court.  When I saw that, I thought “this is going to get complicated.”  Upon further investigation I learn that she is actually receiving payments from her daughter through the Chapter 13 Trustee.   It seems that daughter had bought a new HVAC system for her house and because her credit was so lousy, Mom agreed to co-sign the financing agreement.  Then daughter filed bankruptcy, leaving Mom on the hook to continue to pay for the HVAC system.  And by the way, daughter no longer owned the system or the house due to a foreclosure.  Daughter lost her house and her car.

Mom explained that daughter was unmarried but had two children by two different Dads.  Neither Dad was paying a dime in child support.  One thing led to another and daughter couldn’t afford to pay for either the house or her car.  “Sorry,” I said.   But wait, Mom said, there’s more.  She had loaned daughter $5,000 for the down payment on the house and now that was gone as well.  Once again we learn that no good deed goes unpunished.

Despite having been financially abused by her daughter (and having suffered through two bouts with breast cancer), this nice lady was in good spirits.  She even joked that she had forgotten to add up her medical expenses (we did it in the office) because she had “sometimers” which she said is like Alzheimer’s except that you have your memory “some of the time.”  

When I left for the day, Mr. ToughMoneyLove was once again grateful for the education on money and life that these retirees were providing to me and, I hope, to you.

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12 Responses to “My Life as a Volunteer Tax Preparer – Week 5”
  1. HomeFree says:

    Makes you wonder how tax “preparers” who rip people off can sleep at night! They sound a lot like debt collectors and payday lenders.

  2. Todd says:

    That’s a noble way to donate your time. I did VITA while I was in law school. It sounds like you’re really good with the people. Why did you choose tax prep over something else?

  3. Bekki says:

    I’m a new reader, and I have to say that I’m especially enjoying your posts about doing volunteer tax prep. I find it interesting (and sometimes scary) to hear about what other people do with their finances.

    The story about the daughter taking advantage of her elderly mother MULTIPLE times really ticks me off. First of all – I would never, ever even THINK about borrowing money from my parents or my in-laws. Especially for something like a down-payment on a house. The whole point of a down payment (in my opinion, anyway) is to prove that your finances are stable enough that you can accumulate X amount in savings, therefore you should have no problem (hopefully) keeping up with a mortgage.

    But, to borrow that money, from a parent, AND never pay it back?! Now that’s just low…

  4. savvy says:

    It’s great to hear your stories. This is my first year as a VITA volunteer.

  5. Homefree: Not only are the overcharging for the return but they sell refund anticipation loans at inflated rates.

    Todd: Thanks. I have done some pro bone legal work but I am now more interested in helping people with money problems.

    Bekki: Thanks for being a new reader. I had trouble with the daughter situation as well but you wonder if the mother should have just said no.

    Savvy: This is my first year as well. How is your experience going?

  6. Jelaina says:

    I’m in the midst of helping get potential volunteers trained and will be having our first volunteer tax clinics (hopefully) in about two weeks, with the Accounting Club at my college. We’ll be preparing only simple returns at this time, but it’s a good start.

    Do you have any advice on how much time to schedule for those who need their taxes done, per person or couple?

    Thanks for the story!

  7. Jelaina: We schedule appointments 60 minutes apart but I get most done in about 25-30 minutes. If you are using TaxWise software (or something similar), that is doable. Congrats on your effort.

  8. I agree with everyone commenting on the daughter borrowing from her mother and not returning it, etc. However, there should be some accountability to the poor mother. She has probably enabled this daughter her entire life allowing the daughter to even begin to have the nerve she apparently does. Or the entitlement, depending on hwo you look at it. As a parent, I think it is imperative to teach your children how to be independent and contributing members of society…otherwise, you are doing them a giant disservice.

  9. kitty says:

    “Can you imagine working for the same large corporation (and it was one of the biggest) for 40 years? ”
    Sure. I’ve worked for the same large corporation (IBM) for 25 years – got to chose my 25-year gift last summer, and I plan to continue working for it for as long as they’ll keep me or until I retire (if they keep me as long). A lot of people who work with me have worked for a long time too.

    Why do you think it’s a problem to work for many years for the same corporation? If you are happy with your salary, if you like what you do, if you are happy with the work environment, why would you bother changing? Sure, you may occasionally get a higher salary, but often you lose something else – some benefits like vacation days, for example, the type of job you do, or just people you know and like working with.

    On a different subject – totally agree with everyone about the daughter not returning money to her mother. Ditto on the cost of tax preparation for a straight-forward return. I’ve always wondered why people whose return is very simple can’t do their own taxes.

  10. Kitty: I didn’t mean to suggest that there was anything wrong with working for a single employer for an extended period. I just think it is so unusual in today’s workplace to see that happen.

    With all of the refundable credits now being tossed around by the government, a lot of people are afraid they are going to miss out on something if they try to do their own return.

  11. Beth says:

    I really enjoy these stories.

  12. Julio says:

    Its nice to hear people are doing the respectable thing, Im part of the VITA program this year and am looking for a few good volunteers. I wish every tax preparer had a good heart like this fella did right here, and help the lower income families who require the most assistance. For those who do not know VITA tax preparers provide free income tax returns for low income families.

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