UNC Asheville volunteers prepare area residents’ tax returns for free
For the third consecutive income tax season, UNC Asheville students and alumni are providing free tax preparation assistance for community residents. The effort, part of the IRS VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program, is giving students valuable experience and knowledge, while making a real difference in people’s lives.
“A lot of people come in nervous, but then they find they’re getting a refund,” said Margaret Swearingen, a double-major in accounting and German who has volunteered many Saturdays this semester. “Some people come in with very basic returns, and then you get people with trickier tax situations – it’s very ‘real world’ – not like working a problem out of a textbook. All of the taxpayers have been really grateful.” Swearingen plans to sit for the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) exam after she graduates.
Swearingen and 15 other student and alumni volunteers have set up shop at Pack Memorial Library in downtown Asheville most Saturdays since February. With the Pack Library closed for the Easter holiday on March 30, the final session of this tax season will be April 6.
We are saving people a few hundred dollars they might have paid to prepare their taxes. And the most common tax credit that is missed is the earned income credit – when we point that out, it can make a few hundred more difference to someone. That’s a great feeling.” –Ben Judge
The IRS VITA program offers free income tax preparation for people with incomes of $50,000 or less. VITA volunteers, in this case, the team of UNC Asheville students and alumni, are trained in tax laws and procedures, and confidentiality. “Everyone who works at a VITA site must pass the Volunteer Standards of Conduct exam, whether they are greeting taxpayers, preparing returns or packaging them,” says Monique Taylor, UNC Asheville’s director of internal audit, who also directs the university’s VITA program.
The volunteers use tax preparation software to prepare returns, and each return is then reviewed multiple times to make sure they are accurate, according to Joe Sulock, UNC Asheville’s Cary Caperton Owen Professor of Economics who teaches the service-learning course students take to become VITA volunteers.
Last year, the UNC Asheville VITA team prepared some 675 income tax returns (including state and federal returns), totaling about $438,000 in refunds. This included more than 200 returns for members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
This year, Cherokee’s VITA program has become self-sufficient, so UNC Asheville’s VITA team has worked exclusively in Asheville, where word has spread and the volunteers meet new taxpayers needing help each Saturday.
“We are saving people a few hundred dollars they might have paid to prepare their taxes,” said Ben Judge, who is majoring in political science (he is also SGA president) with a minor in economics. “And the most common tax credit that is missed is the earned income credit – when we point that out, it can make a few hundred more difference to someone. That’s a great feeling. Dr. Sulock and Monique Taylor make sure we are really prepared and it has been a great experience.”