The Journal Gazette
 
 
Sunday, February 21, 2021 1:00 am

Pandemic restrictions crimp free tax services

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Some local residents who usually rely on free tax preparation could be scrambling this year because of changes related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The AARP Foundation's Tax-Aide program offers free filing help to anyone, especially those 50 and older, who can't afford a tax preparation service. Volunteers typically meet face-to-face with taxpayers, often in library branches. But that's not possible this season, said Eldon Anderson, AARP district coordinator for tax prep.

“Change is the operative word this year,” he said during a phone interview.

The program is asking taxpayers to schedule an appointment for one of two locations – St Joseph Township Community Hall, 6033 Maplecrest Road, or Allen County Public Library downtown, Ewing Street entrance.

“We need a larger space so we can socially distance,” Anderson said.

The taxpayer will be asked to fill out a form and scan it and all relevant documents needed by the AARP volunteer, he said. A phone number is also required in case the tax preparer has any questions.

A follow-up appointment is schedule for one week later so the AARP volunteer can explain the results and answer questions and the taxpayer can sign the forms before they are filed electronically.

“The plan is to minimize the time of interaction between the taxpayer and tax preparer,” Anderson said.

Even though the all-volunteer AARP program doesn't offer online registration or even a phone number to call, taxpayers have been finding ways to schedule appointments, including by calling locations whether they previously met the program's tax preparers. The first appointments are scheduled for this week.

“We've been inundated,” Anderson said. “We're behind. We know that. We're trying to find more volunteers.”

The Tax-Aide program's volunteers must complete tax preparation training and IRS certification before the AARP Foundation allows them to work with the public.

Another option

The Volunteer Center, a local nonprofit, will also offer free tax preparation with enhanced sanitation and social distancing protocols. The service is available to households with income less than $57,000.

The program also requires tax preparers to be IRS-certified.

No appointments are necessary. Taxpayers are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

They are asked to fill out an IRS intake sheet and do a short interview with a volunteer or staff member.

After the return is completed, the taxpayer will be contacted and asked to return to review and sign the state and federal forms, which will be filed electronically.

For more information, call 211 or 260-424-3505 or go online to www.volunteerfortwayne.org/content/free-tax-help.

Paying for help

For returns filed for the 2018 tax year, 55% of taxpayers used a paid preparer, according to the IRS.

The IRS recently issued some tips for choosing a tax preparer:

• Look for a preparer who is available year-round in case questions arise after filing season.

• Ask if the preparer has an IRS preparer tax identification number, which is required for paid preparers.

• Inquire about the preparer's credentials and check his qualifications.

• Ask about service fees. Avoid preparers who base fees on a percentage of their clients' refund or claim to offer a bigger refund than their competition.

• Never sign a blank or incomplete return, and review the return before signing. Refunds should go directly to the taxpayer, not the preparer.

Karen Johnson, a certified public accountant with Witwer Wood Tax Consultants, advises taxpayers searching for an experienced, skilled tax preparer to ask a friend, family member or trusted associate for a recommendation.

sslater@jg.net


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