By Barb Wollan
An income tax refund provides an important annual financial boost for many Iowa families. Claiming that tax refund, however, is sometimes more expensive than it needs to be, according to Barb Wollan, a human sciences specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
“I talk to people all the time whose tax refunds are equal to one to three months of income. They rely on their tax refund to accomplish the financial goals they’ve set for the year,” said Wollan, who specializes in family finance.
“People sometimes resign themselves to spending $100-$300 in tax preparation fees, deciding it’s ‘worth it’ in order to get their tax refund, which may be a few thousand dollars,” Wollan said. “However, if they didn’t pay for tax preparation, they would certainly find a good use for the extra few hundred dollars.”
The good news is that there are at least two ways for low and moderate-income households to file their taxes for free, Wollan said.
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance is an IRS-sponsored program in which certified volunteer tax preparers work with taxpayers to file their income tax returns for free. VITA sites are intended for low and moderate income taxpayers, with some flexibility in income guidelines depending on an individual’s situation.
Volunteers are equipped to prepare returns with a range of tax issues, including the most common types of income and tax credits. There are, however, some tax issues that volunteers are not allowed to address, including farm and rental income and some types of small business returns.
In many Iowa counties, ISU Extension and Outreach is a partner in VITA, often hosting VITA sites and assisting with site management. ISU Extension specialists also provide training and technical support to some Iowa sites.
“VITA volunteers work in pairs or teams with careful quality monitoring processes to ensure accurate tax returns,” said Wollan. “These caring and capable individuals work to help taxpayers understand their tax returns, and to inform them about opportunities to claim deductions or credits in the future.”
To find a VITA site anywhere in the nation, go to www.irs.gov
and search for VITA.
“The IRS website also lists free tax preparation sites operated by AARP, which are similar to VITA sites. Some tax sites operate on an appointment basis, while other sites offer walk-in service. The listing found on the website will provide the information you need,” Wollan said.
IRS ‘Free File’ option
For taxpayers who are fairly comfortable with computers, the IRS offers an online “Free File” option as well. Learn more at www.irs.gov/filing/free-file-do-your-federal-taxes-for-free. This service results from a collaboration of various commercial tax software providers who make their software available free to qualifying consumers. The software packages are user-friendly, designed for people who are not tax experts.
“Before paying to have your taxes prepared, consider making use of one of the free options,” suggests Wollan. “If you are not able to take advantage of free tax preparation, shop wisely when selecting tax preparation software or a professional tax preparer, and avoid paying fees for refund loans and other non-essential products or services. Your tax refund is a return of your money – keep it for your own use.”