The Indicator from Planet Money - The VITA(L) Role Of Free Tax Prep

The IRS helps millions of people do their taxes FOR FREE every year. But, as with many things in the past year, covid has made this a little more complicated.

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This is the indicator from Planet Money. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. I'm Brittany Cronin. And it is tax season. Grab your W-2s and your 1099s, because it's that time of year again. Oh my God. Yes, it is that time of year and I have not filed my taxes yet Brittany at home. Store in major anxiety. But, but I did finally make an appointment with my accountant. So good. I have an appoint with might as well. She is my mother new clients. I will give her your number and I was actually just talking about this with the Andrew Smith. She's a single mom of three in Oklahoma City. And here is how she thinks about taxes like finals, all over again. She would usually pay a tax preparer to help her get her taxes in order, but that is not really an option. This year. General left. Her job as a first grade teacher.

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Little over a year ago because of a family, emergency, then the pandemic started and she could not get her job back or any job so much money has just been really tight. I did have a little bit in savings but unfortunately that's gone. Now it's been a year was thinking about doing her taxes on her own for the very first time and she's counting on thousands of dollars in tax refunds. And if DeAndre makes a mistake on her taxes, she might not get that money. And there's actually a big Federal program that exists to help people like Diandra the program offers tax prep free of charge to low-income taxpayers but of course, like almost everything in life, covid has thrown that full program into disarray today, on the show, free tax prep, how an army of volunteers is battling through the pandemic, to make sure millions of people get with their own.

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When the under Smith decided that she was going to do her own taxes this year, she thought there was no way that I'm the only person in this situation. That's the other people that are trying to get everything, get everything together and like, you know, stressing and complaining about doing their taxes. Lewis Care Plus deandra's getting some pushback. From a very important figure in her life, her mom, my mom just wasn't comfortable with doing it myself. She's going to make sure everything was done properly and then fate stepped in. I got the call about the free tax service Spokane. Fate. It was actually called her job, search coach. She told me that they were

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Can I have a free tax service there at the building is talking about, is the volunteer income tax assistance program, also known as Vitae, it is an IRS funded program that trains volunteers to prepare taxes for free. It's open to anyone making less than $57,000 a year. The program is often run out of community centers public libraries universities by a small But Mighty in 2019 more than eighty thousand. Volunteers prepared. Three and a half million tax returns volunteers like this. And how long have you been working in Nevada program around 25 years? What's a long time? I guess there is there's been a lot of lot of things going on and I was 25 years to fight at that is right? Mary is an Emeritus professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and this year Mary is feeling a little in over her head and it has really taken a hit during the pandemic. Lots of sights of clothes down at Mary's University, they

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The convert from in person to online. We're very, very busy. I am glad that I am not teaching full time because I am working full-time to do this mare is running into a few challenges at her vitacyte this year. The first is just time. She got a late start Congress passed the second coronavirus relief bill at the end of December the IRS then had the update. Its computer programming in accordance with the new tax Provisions in that bill. And that took a few weeks until February 12th tax season is supposed to start. You know, in January the IRS, did push back the tax deadline to May 17th, but even with that extra month, Mary ran into a second challenge. She didn't have enough. Volunteers for more, likely involved every tax one student at the University. So we had 50 people 50 preparers involved in our program, but I couldn't do that this year because of social distancing and half of the universities.

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Kids being virtual and everything else about covid 13, volunteers this year and to make matters, worse each return is just taking much longer to complete and that's because marrying, her students can't meet with their clients in person. They used to prepare the tax return with the taxpayer in one sitting. Now that everything is gone remote, it's a whole process. It's like pulling hen's teeth to get the missing document from the taxpayers to phone them to text them, to message them, to email them and then the taxpayer gets back with us but we can't get to it right now because we're doing other things, the whole system is just conqueror. In my opinion. It's twice as long to do almost everything Mary's biggest challenge is that she's seeing a new kind of clients. I wish I had a number on how many tax returns are, including

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An additional $600 per person for that. Second stimulus payment, there are millions of people who still haven't gotten their stimulus checks from last year. Some of these people didn't earn enough to have to file taxes to the IRS, just didn't know where to send the money. And now Mary is helping these people file taxes, just to claim their stimulus money. While she says, she's very, very happy to do it. She is stretched really thin right now. Qualify for a good number of benefit. Those are those are valuable credits that you can only get through filing a tax return or is that she's now spending more time, helping people get their stimulus checks and less time, helping them file for some of those tax refunds. Refunds that DeAndre Smith was really counting on this year and she's one of the lucky ones who did get access to local by the site. It was definitely worth it every bit of it. Because as I said, it was free as the whole process is really smooth.

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Your documents to get scanned and then a couple weeks later, she got a call from the volunteer to review her return. It was just super simple, super easy. And even at the end, I was like, seriously, this is it, I'm done. That was so not painful at all. Those great kind of the opposite of what you expect to filing taxes as a refund of more than $10,000 this year. That's $2,000 more than it would have been last year. And this is because of the American Rescue plan which increased the size of a few tax benefits aimed at lower earners. Like Diandra, DeAndre says her $10,000 refund will help cover family's needs and maybe even if you want like a nice birthday present for a kids, after a year of unemployment gender says this, big refund will help her family start to get back on its feet. And in case you dear listener, like me, not yet, filed your taxes. Will drop the vital link on our website at the IRS by the way, have another free option.

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Violin called refile. There's no one there, helping you. But there are step by step instructions on what to do and we will link to that as well. Make them stick together and pack time Britney make a case for your taxes. This episode of the indicator was produced by Darren woods with help from Dave Blanchard and gillham in his backpack, by Sam Tsui, our editors Kate concannon, and the indicator is a production of NPR.

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