Several groups offering free tax preparation

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Completing income tax forms isn't most people's idea of a good time, but local volunteers providing free income tax preparation assistance say they enjoy helping others.

"While I'm learning about something I want to do with my life, I get to help somebody else out," said Meghan Nehls, a sophomore accounting student at Southeast Missouri State University. Nehls wants to go into forensic accounting, helping investigate financial crimes, but for now, she's volunteering with the United Way of Southeast Missouri, one of several local organizations providing free tax preparation.

AARP and the East Missouri Community Action Agency take part in the IRS's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program offering free tax preparation for low- to moderate-income individuals or families, generally making $50,000 or less. Volunteers offer services at several local sites including the Cape Girardeau Senior Center, public library and Salvation Army.

Volunteers with the United Way and AARP, who have completed a minimum of 20 hours of free IRS training, prepared more than 850 free tax returns last year for Cape Girardeau County residents.

Retired engineer Dennis Dobson spends about 14 hours a week January through April helping seniors file their tax returns through the VITA program.

"There's always that self-satisfaction when you do something for somebody who needs help. They are so happy and relieved that a real burden has been taken from them," said Dobson, an AARP volunteer with the VITA program for the past nine years.

Volunteers use IRS software and electronically file returns. People usually receive their refunds, if they choose direct deposit into their bank account, in five to 10 business days. Filers also have the option of getting their refund on a debit card, which has been popular this year, McGowan said.

"Many low income filers will go out and get a loan against their tax return, not realizing they're losing $600 to $800 by doing that when they could get their taxes done for free and still receive their refund relatively quickly," McGowan said.

AARP offers tax preparation services primarily to those older than 60, but AARP District 9 tax preparation coordinator Roger Riley said he's never turned anyone away. His volunteers have filed taxes for 16-year-old students and 97-year-old women.

"We are just trying to help people out in this economy," Riley said. "There are some people who just can't afford $150 to $300 to have their taxes done."

Almost everyone who qualifies for free income tax preparation also qualifies for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, which can range from $3,050 to $5,666 depending on the number of qualifying children in the home, said John McGowan, director of community impact at the United Way of Southeast Missouri.

The IRS estimates that only about half of those who qualify for the credit actually receive it, McGowan said.

"We're missing out on a significant amount of money that could be coming back into our community," he said. "Putting an extra $600 to $1,000 in the pocket of someone in need can help them be more self-sufficient. Maybe help them pay off a utility bill, which is the biggest need we're seeing right now."

Other federal tax credits low- to middle-income filers may be eligible for include child tax credit up to $1,000 per child; child care tax credit up to $2,100; and Making Work Pay credit up to $800.

For more information on how to receive free tax preparation assistance, call First Call for Help at 334-9634 or the VITA hot line at 1-800-906-9887.


Pertinent address:

430A Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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