As coronavirus (COVID-19) developments change hour by hour, AARP Foundation and United Way of Anchorage are doing our part to flatten the curve of transmission. A top priority for us is ensuring we are protecting those most at risk, including our volunteers and taxpayers. Therefore, we are suspending Free Tax Preparation in Anchorage beginning March 16 until further notice.
Most quotes about taxes favor the dark side, especially this time of year when we face filing federal income taxes. One of the best known, attributed to Ben Franklin, links taxes and death.
Banish the reaper and take heart, for we’ve got your back in this season of anxiety, and the bottom line may give new life to your budget.
United Way of Anchorage and AARP Foundation Tax-Aide again have teamed this year to offer Free Tax Preparation six days a week, alternating at nine sites in Anchorage from Chugiak to Girdwood. Free Tax Prep provides IRS-certified preparers and runs through April 15.
On April 4, we’ll offer Free Tax Prep along with a Financial Fair at the Loussac Library from 10:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. We’ll have computer stations for those who want to do their own taxes backed up by tax coaches who can answer questions.
What good does this do? Let’s count the good from 2019:
- 3,758 residents saved $751,600 in tax preparation fees.
- Volunteers helped residents claim $889,649 in Earned Income Tax Credits.
- Free Tax Prep logged over $4 million in tax refunds.
Since the tax year 2000, Free Tax Prep has delivered $133,451,558 in refunds that strengthen family finances and circulate more money in the Anchorage economy. That counts here in Alaska, where we pay about 80 percent more than the national average for health care, 70 percent more for food and 33 percent more for utilities.
Often, people simply don’t know what refunds they might have coming, what deductions or tax credits they can take. A certified tax preparer does, so can help streamline the process, make sure your return is accurate and make sure you get what’s yours. The numbers above reflect the success of their work.
But Free Tax Prep is about more than numbers. It’s about having someone on your side to navigate those numbers and the rules that apply to them. Someone like Cheryl Teller, a United Way of Anchorage information manager and tax prep volunteer with 20 years’ experience.
“About two weeks ago I had a lady come in,” she recounted recently. The woman had custody of her two children. “She probably made $19,000 last year,” Teller said. “Just struggling… She didn’t want anything mailed to her because she didn’t know if she’d have a home.”
“These folks don’t realize that the earned income tax credit is so powerful,” Teller said. The woman with two children realizes it now. She received $9,000 in earned income tax credit and child tax credits. That’s almost a 50 percent increase in her wages.
Another woman with 2 children and a cleaning business had been underreporting her income on the advice of friends. Teller figured that out before the woman told her and suggested running more realistic numbers through the computer just to see where they’d land.
“We spent a good two hours on her taxes,” Teller said. The result was an accurate, honest return – and a $10,000 boost in her income from the Earned Income Tax Credit and other credits.
“She was just floored.”
And much better off financially.
As Teller points out, the Earned Income Tax Credit was designed as an incentive to keep people working, but it can’t work if people don’t know about it. And it can’t work if those who qualify for it need help with their taxes but can’t afford a regular tax preparer – especially because filing for the Earned Income Tax Credit increases the cost of paid tax prep. Volunteers gladly fill the gap.
“Where else can I sit down and give somebody $150 or $250?” Teller said.
“Helping people is part of the passion,” Teller said of her fellow volunteers, “but they also share a nerdiness.”
“We are nerds on a mission to get that person one more dollar.”
Sometimes that dollar is just one less that people owe; the bottom line can still be a tax bill for some filers (Free Tax Prep is open to everyone). Volunteers offer expertise, not magic, but will make sure the bill is no more than what a filer owes.
They have a passion for solving the puzzle for people flummoxed by tax rules. Volunteer tax preparers work together, and every return is reviewed by a second certified preparer to ensure accuracy.
“I like that somebody’s looking over my work,” Teller said. So do taxpayers. Between the tests for certification and the rigor of a separate review of every return, Free Tax Prep scores an accuracy rate well into the 90s, among the best in the industry.
Better than the line about death and taxes is the one that says that it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Curses may be a sound of tax season, but we’ve got the candles and they don’t cost a dime.