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Turn tax season into outreach time

SUMMARY: Tax season is one of the most dreaded times of the year. However, using your church resources can make filing friendly and free.

Setting up a tax clinic at your church is a good way to help your congregation and to draw community members inside your facility. Your church can serve as a center of relief as the April 15 Internal Revenue Service deadline approaches.

A tax clinic requires planning, preparation and implementation. Tax clinics can take many shapes. You might enlist the services of members who are trained tax preparers. You could also invite a local accounting firm to provide or sponsor a clinic at your church. Trained volunteers can also staff the clinic.

Please note that  professional tax preparers should provide their services for free during the clinic. The congregation must ensure it does not violate tax laws by allowing a profit-making business to operate within the church. Churches also should be cautious if a company or professional preparer solicits  business through the clinic.

The federal government trains individuals to assist clients with their returns through programs such as IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, Tax Counseling for the Elderly and AARP Tax-Aide. The trained volunteers then give free tax help to those who qualify. Members of your church and your community could become trained volunteers, and your congregation could host a free clinic that offers hospitality, information and support as well as tax assistance.

One United Methodist congregation combined hot coffee and fresh donuts with free tax advice. West Nashville United Methodist Church offered a free tax preparation clinic every Saturday for three months. The church hosted AARP Tax-Aide, part of the IRS-sponsored Tax Counseling for the Elderly program. Thousands of locations across the country host these programs, which have assisted more than 30 million older adults and low-income people over the past 40 years.

How do I find information on setting up a free tax clinic?
For information on becoming an AARP Tax-Aide site, call (888) 227-7669, then press option “2” to speak to an expert in volunteer recruitment. You also can visit AARP's site for more information. If you are specifically looking to help those age 60 years and older, you can contact Tax Counseling for the Elderly at (800) 829-1040 or www.irs.gov.

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) offers free help to people who earn $38,000 or less annually. Volunteers sponsored by various organizations  receive training to help prepare basic tax returns. VITA sites are generally located at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools, shopping malls and other convenient locations, such as your church. To inquire about becoming a VITA site, call (800) 829-1040, or visit www.vita-volunteers.org/.

How to set up your own free tax clinic

  • Schedule your clinic for February or March to avoid the crush of late-season tax filers. If the clinic is not related to a formal, limited program, such as Tax-Aide or VITA, expect more people to request help.
  • Have a training session several weeks before the first clinic. Ask your non-tax preparer volunteers to greet clinic participants. (See Who can help section below for more details.)
  • Publicize the clinics through church announcements, fliers at well-visited community outlets and local media.
  • Remind prospective participants to make appointments. Make registration as easy as possible.
  • Contact registered participants a week before the clinic to remind them and give them a list of items to bring, such as photo identification, W-2s, and interest and dividend statements.
  • Set up computers (at least three would be helpful) with Internet access and a printer filled with paper.
  • Have a phone line available in case tax preparers need to call the IRS helpline at (800) 829-1040.

Who can help 
Volunteers who are comfortable working with people, understand the need to keep participants’ information private and can handle a computer are good candidates. Several companies offer free, basic tax software: Tax ACT, Free File and TurboTax. Volunteers can follow step-by-step programs and receive free assistance from the IRS online at www.irs.gov to complete the filing process. The free programs calculate taxes, deductions and credits, and electronically file federal tax forms. State tax forms are available only in the pay versions of the software.

Your  local United Way chapter or a local bank or accounting firm might help sponsor and set up your clinic. Their assistance may help your tax clinic run smoothly.

Take advantage of local universities. In many cases, colleges offer free assistance for tax clinics staffed by law students who have licensed attorneys as advisers.

Volunteers are not held liable for someone else’s tax return, but it is best to have participants sign a release form at the beginning of each session. Volunteers should not sign completed tax forms. It is the responsibility of the client to make certain all information is accurate and complete.

Make the most of the opportunity
Once you have participants inside your doors, it is important to remember why you are here in the first place. The free tax clinic can be the perfect opportunity to remind people of how to make the most of their charitable donations in the future. You could set up a short workshop before or after the clinic, have volunteers highlight the charitable-benefit possibilities or create a brochure to distribute. Topics could include recording cash contributions, tangible and in-kind donations, the importance of documentation and the need to itemize. You also could discuss planned giving.Visit http://www.pgresources.com/ for more information.

Such a relief!
Imagine the contentment your participants will experience. One recipient of the free tax services at West Nashville United Methodist Church summed it up. “I’m all finished with my taxes,” she said. “It was free, and they served coffee and donuts. You cannot beat that. I’m relieved and appreciate that [my return was] filed electronically. I don’t even have to put a stamp on it.”