AARP Foundation Tax-Aide Program Supported By Volunteers
A national program since 1968, the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program has been assisting Marshfield area residents with preparing tax returns free-of-charge since 2005.
About the Program
First organized locally by Don Zais, with help from the AARP Foundation and the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, volunteers are able to prepare federal and Wisconsin income tax returns, as well as Homestead Credit, with a tax software program and electronic filing.
“The folks we help generally have limited incomes. Most are from the older generation that worked hard and asked for little,” said Don Nystrom, Tax Aide volunteer. “It is a feel-good just to be able to help them. They really appreciate it and a smile is my reward.”
In 2016, The AARP Foundation estimates that nationwide 35,000+ volunteers at over 5,000 sites assisted more than 2.5 million low- to moderate-income taxpayers; in Wisconsin, there were approximately 125 sites, 950 volunteers, and 55,000 taxpayers helped.
In the past three years, clients’ ages locally were between 16 and 105, with the average Federal Adjusted Gross Income (FAGI) of local clients in 2015 $14,596 (source: IRS).
According the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2015 federal poverty guideline for a single person was $11,770 and $15,930 for a family of two. 2015 Census Bureau statistics indicate that approximately 10% of Marshfield area residents earned less than the poverty level.
About 47% of the 2015 tax returns prepared locally included Homestead Credit. $24,680 is the maximum income allowed to qualify for this credit, with many types of nontaxable federal or Wisconsin income considered “Homestead” income. This includes Social Security, disability, unemployment, VA and railroad retirement pensions, contributions to a retirement account, scholarships, court-ordered child support and maintenance, and part of Wisconsin or county public assistance.
The Impact of Volunteers
“In 2017, we will have 17 volunteers working out of the Marshfield site at United Way; two volunteers do tax preparation mostly in Neillsville several days of the ‘tax season.’ We also travel to Medford several days to help prepare returns at their new site,” said Julie Hastreiter, local coordinator.
Volunteers are either Client Facilitators, the first point of contact for clients, or Counselors, who prepare and/or review the income tax returns. All volunteers are annually trained and tested on ethics, as well as the intake, interview, and quality review process. In addition, Counselors are trained and tested and then certified by the IRS in tax law.
Client Facilitators help the taxpayer complete a comprehensive Intake/Interview form. They also ensure that the client has all of the necessary tax documents to complete their tax returns, which makes the return preparation easier for the Counselors.
During the tax return preparation process, a Counselor reviews the Intake/Interview form with the client, verifying that all of the supporting documents are available. They then enter the data into the software program, asking any additional questions necessary to ensure the return is accurate and complete.
A second Counselor then reviews the entire tax return and also confirms information with the taxpayer. The return is printed and reviewed with the client and any questions are answered. The client signs a form that allows us to electronically file their tax returns and all of their documents—the Intake/Interview form, a copy of the tax returns and any tax forms—are returned to them. We do not keep any paper records.
Hastreiter commends the hard work of Tax Aide volunteers. “The Marshfield volunteers are a terrific group of people and truly work as a team to make the tax return preparation process easier and more pleasant for everyone,” she said.
A Community Effort
“The AARP Foundation does not allow Tax-Aide sites to pay rent, so we are especially grateful to Marshfield Area United Way for letting us use part of their building where there is space to provide privacy for our clients during the tax return preparation process,” said Hastreiter.
For the past few years, United Way has also scheduled appointments for the group, and this year, Marshfield Area Community Foundation provided a grant to help pay for appointment reminder postcards.
This community effort provides significant assistance to local taxpayers, helping them maximize their returns.
“For thousands of households across our region, accessing the right resources during tax season is critical in obtaining a full tax refund,” said Paul Jero, Executive Director at Marshfield Area United Way. “The simple truth is that when taxes are done right, the result could mean valuable tax credits and refunds that go a long way in a family’s annual budget.”
She added that, according to the IRS, approximately 20% of residents do not claim one of the biggest boosters to family incomes – the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a refundable credit that can amount to as much as $6,318 per qualifying family – simply because they are unaware of their eligibility, or do not file their taxes.
“United Way’s partnership with the AARP and their free tax preparation program is one of the ways that we can assist low and moderate households in increasing their income,” she said.
How To Receive Assistance
AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program offers free tax preparation help to anyone, with the program designed especially for those age 50 and older. There is no fee and no sales pitch for other services and AARP membership is not required.
Additionally, the Tax-Aide program does limit the type of tax returns Counselors can prepare. Some of those returns include: Married Filing Separately; bankruptcies or divorces in the tax year; farms; depreciation (rental or business); businesses with employees; active military; international income; states other than Wisconsin (unless trained for); and other forms they have not been trained for). A detailed list of which forms and schedules (or parts of those) that they can and cannot prepare for clients is in their Scope Manual.