Hate doing taxes? Not these guys

Tax-prep volunteers recoup big money for low-income clients and seniors

For most people, doing taxes once each year is more than enough, but Sheldon Kay does as many as 20 returns for other people -- for free.

Kay, a retired engineer who spent most of his career working on the Hubble telescope, is one of a group of volunteers who fill out tax forms for low- and moderate-income people and seniors through the United Way of the Bay Area's EarnIt!KeepIt!SaveIt! program.

The program has saved millions of dollars in taxes for Bay Area residents who earn less than $49,000 per year, according to the organization.

Volunteers have also prevented thousands of people from predatory lending by some for-fee tax preparers, who offer enticing high-interest advances on refund checks.

With one month left in this year's tax season, the program has seen a 25 percent increase in demand over last year, in large part because many first-time clients had their incomes drop significantly due to job loss or cuts in hours, Kelly Batson, regional director, said.

Last year, 33 percent of program clients reported that they or someone in their household had lost a job in the previous year, and 29 percent had a cut in hours or wages, she said.

"Even if you didn't qualify for free tax preparation in previous years, this year could be different, especially if you saw a reduction in your income. Not only will you get your taxes prepared for free, but you'll also receive expert guidance on how to account for unemployment benefits in your tax return and which tax breaks you are eligible for when your income is down," she said.

Those tax breaks can amount to a significant savings and even a refund in thousands of dollars, she said.

Last year, the program recouped $57 million in tax refunds from 51,963 tax returns volunteers prepared, according to Rob Nerrie, site coordinator at JobTrain in Menlo Park, which is one of 211 Bay Area sites. The program started in Alameda County in 2003 with 14 locations, he said.

People often don't realize they can earn income credits and credits for being single-family heads of households with dependents, he said.

One such credit, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, is the nation's largest benefits program for working families. It can boost the annual income of a low-wage worker by 10 percent, according to the United Way.

The credit is often overlooked by commercial tax preparers, but EarnIt!KeepIt!SaveIt! volunteers are trained to identify eligible taxpayers, Nerrie said.

The savings can be significant, Batson said.

"A family of five making $12,000 to $25,000 can receive a $5,600 refund. I saw a family with a $20,000 income that got $9,000 back last year," she said.

The program also keeps financially vulnerable clients in need of immediate cash out of the hands of predatory lenders, Nerrie said. Some commercial tax preparers try to sell refund-anticipation loans that advance cash before the tax refund comes in.

"The loans can carry up to 300 percent interest on your money," he said.

But EarnIt!KeepIt!SaveIt! volunteers help clients who have never had a bank account to set up direct-deposit accounts so that refunds quickly arrive. Someone filing their taxes online today would have their money by April 1, he said.

The program is approved and monitored by the Internal Revenue Service, Nerrie said. Volunteers receive about five days of training and have a thick instruction manual at the ready while preparing the tax returns one-on-one with the client.

For volunteers such as Kay, the work is immediately satisfying, he said.

"The last gal I helped here said, 'I need the money' and she got a nice refund. It makes me feel good that she walks away happy."

Kay said he did his own taxes years ago and began doing tax returns for friends who were afraid of numbers or who were not as computer savvy.

Some filings are simple; others take two hours.

The news isn't always good, however. Some people don't realize they'll owe on unemployment benefits; others whose homes were foreclosed on will have the sale sum count as income, and that can mean thousands of dollars in taxes that they don't have, he said.

Madhu Mehta, another retired engineer, volunteered at another federal tax-prep program in Houston, Texas, before coming to California. The area was exceedingly impoverished, filled with little shacks on stilts that were raised to avoid flooding, he said. But he could still give hope to people making only $3,000 to $4,000 a year by finding tax credits that could put money in their pockets, he said.

"It was a big awakening," he added.

One client this year sticks in his mind:

"She had a good job before at an airline and is out of work. She had an apartment and had to leave it and move in with friends. Now she is the head of her household.

"I told her that she had a significant amount of a refund. She was so shocked when she saw that number. She was thrilled," he said.

Eligible persons for the program can locate an EarnIt!KeepIt!SaveIt! site by calling 211 or 800-358-8832.

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Like this comment
Posted by Lynne
a resident of another community
on Mar 25, 2011 at 4:12 pm

It is wonderful that knowledgeable people are willing to give of their time to help others with their taxes.

Like this comment
Posted by Stella
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 26, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Wow, great to see this article!! I am one of them who fill out tax forms for low- and moderate-income people and seniors through the United Way of the Bay Area's EarnIt!KeepIt!SaveIt! program. It's a great program, I learned a lot!! :-)

Like this comment
Posted by Belinda
a resident of another community
on Mar 30, 2011 at 8:05 am

While I think it is great that these folks are offering their services for freem I don't think that companies that offer these services are predatory. I work for one of these companies. We give free estimates of what the person is getting back and what the fees will be. No one is tricked into doing their taxes with us. We use trained people to file these taxes and offer extra security in case of an audit or anything else that may come up.

Like this comment
Posted by Rob
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 22, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Thanks for the great article!

We're looking for tax preparation volunteers for winter/spring 2012:

VITA Tax Preparation Volunteer Job Descriptions
JobTrain, Menlo Park

Tax-Aid has been helping low income families prepare their tax returns in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 23 years. As the lead agency for the United Way’s Earn It! Keep It! Save It! Program in San Mateo County, we are partnering with the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. In addition to providing free tax preparation services, we are working with Single Stop USA to connect low-income clients at JobTrain in Menlo Park/East Palo Alto to various benefits (i.e. Food Stamps, health insurance, etc.). Together, our goal is to ensure that community members have access to and receive all the benefits that they are entitled to receive.

We are seeking volunteers of all levels to help us deliver these vital and free services to the community.

There are volunteer opportunities for Greeters, Tax Preparers, E-file Tax Preparers, Translators and Tax Return Reviewers. While some opportunities require knowledge of tax laws and require certification, there are many opportunities for those who are not familiar with the tax laws to volunteer with us.

VITA Volunteer Responsibilities for All Positions

• Commit to at least 3 months of service starting in February 2012.
• Attend all applicable training workshops and site orientation classes. Mandatory all day training is December 3, 10 and January 7.
• Work with individuals in a positive, respectful and empowering manner.

Preferred Skills, Experience, Attitude and Availability

• Bilingual skills desirable (English/Spanish, English/Cantonese or English/Mandarin).
• Strong interpersonal communication skills with people from diverse life circumstances.
• Tax background desirable, but not required for all positions.
• Experience working with low-income communities desirable.
• Enthusiastic and flexible.
• Availability Tuesdays and/or Thursdays afternoon or evening.

Specific Positions

• Greet Taxpayers.
• Make sure they are comfortable while they wait.
• Check that they have the necessary documents so they can be helped.

Tax Preparers
• Must be certified as a VITA Tax Preparer.
• Interview Taxpayer.
• Complete tax forms.
• Prepare the return for filing.

• Must be bilingual or multilingual.
• Must be able to conduct communication between the Taxpayer and VITA Tax Preparer.
• Help to interview Taxpayer when the Taxpayer is not familiar with the language of the Tax
• Desired language skills are English/Spanish, English/Cantonese or English/Mandarin
both verbal and written.
• If Translator is certified as a VITA Tax Preparer, he/she may also help answer tax

Tax Return Reviewers
• Must be certified at VITA advanced certification level.
• Review returns that have already been prepared.
• Tax background a plus.

Volunteer Perks

• Learn tax law and utilize cutting edge tax software.
• Receive ongoing training and support from skilled professionals.
• Become an IRS certified tax preparer.
• Help make a substantial difference in the lives of clients.

How to Apply:

Please email

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