When he worked as a professional tax preparer in the late 1990s, Jim Berry charged anywhere from $60 to $150 to complete an average return. But his services are now available to low- and moderate-income seniors for free as part of the AARP Foundation’s Tax Aide program.
“It’s a fun and interesting thing to do and it lets me give back to the community,” said Berry, who has volunteered with the program for 10 years. He is one of about 15 volunteers who set up shop at Bend Senior Center, one of four Tax Aide program sites in Central Oregon (see “Find help”).
Since 1968, the AARP Foundation’s Tax Aide program has dispatched an army of trained volunteer tax preparers across the country as part of an effort to make sure its clients pay exactly what they owe in taxes - nothing more and nothing less - and receive the maximum refund available.
The program’s volunteers also work closely with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which offers free tax help to people who earn $51,000 or less and might need assistance preparing their personal income tax returns.
Berry said there are a few items seniors tend to miss when they fill out their tax returns that can make a huge difference in what they pay.
He points out that people who are 59 or older can deduct any medical expenses incurred from their incomes on their Oregon state tax returns. People can only deduct these expenses on their federal taxes if the amount they paid is more than 7.5 percent of their adjusted gross income; for example, they would have had to spend $3,000 on medical bills if their total income for that year was $40,000.
Berry also said people can be confused about whether they need to pay taxes on their Social Security benefits. The answer is “no” if those benefits were their only source of income, he said, but could be “yes” in cases where the individual had another source of taxable income, such as a pension plan.
While helping steer someone through the tax code can be confusing, the work of AARP’s Tax Aide volunteers pays off.
According to a report the agency issued, since 2010 the program’s 35,000 volunteers helped clients across the U.S. receive $1.2 billion in tax refunds and qualify for $233 million in earned income tax credits the clients may have missed if they didn’t have help with their taxes.
The agency also found 98 percent of the people who used the program in 2011 thought the service was excellent or good, 96 percent said they would recommend it to someone needing help and 16 percent said they liked it so much that they have used the tax aide service for at least seven years.
Find help with your taxes
Call these numbers to schedule an appointment at a Tax Aide center near you:
* Bend Senior Center: 541-706-6234
* Redmond Senior Center: 541-548-6325
* La Pine Pentecostal Church of God: 541-536-6237
* Warm Springs Community Action Team: 541-553-3148
Source: AARP Foundation Tax Aide program