Filing taxes can be overwhelming.
That’s why, since the 1970s, the IRS has funded programs like the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program to help low- to moderate-income households and those who are age 60 and older with their taxes. And for decades, nonprofits and universities like AARP and Saint Joseph’s University have taken part in these programs to assist taxpayers in the region.
Both VITA and TCE have the highest accuracy rate of tax preparation services in the country—and many people end up saving money by utilizing these services, with the average person preparing their taxes via VITA saving $273. These services can also help clients access money they’re owed, like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which can bring in up $6,318 to qualifying families.
Like everything else in the age of Covid-19, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into how these programs run. Compared to previous years, there are fewer in-person VITA and TCE sites open and operating at full capacity.
There are, however, more ways to participate in these programs than ever before.
Steps to getting free tax preparation
1. Figure out if you qualify
First and foremost, you need to determine if you qualify for the services. If you make $57,000 or less, have a disability or speak limited English, you’re likely eligible to take part in the services provided by VITA. That said, if you own and operate your own business or own a rental property, you are not eligible.
If you’re 60 years or older, regardless of your job or income, you can qualify to get free tax preparation via TCE.
While some people will qualify for both programs, volunteers working with TCE specialize in answering questions about pensions and retirement-related issues that are unique to seniors. So if you qualify for both programs but could benefit from this guidance, look for participating TCE programs over VITA.
Both programs require participants to either be U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
2. Make a plan for how to file
In previous years, the only way to receive free tax preparation was to bring your tax documents to a VITA or TCE location—and then work with a volunteer one-on-one. Each location does the process differently, but there are now four ways to file with a VITA or TCE volunteer. United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey is one of the participating VITA partners offering all four. Here are your options:
- Virtual: With this option, you’ll set up a time with a volunteer who will guide you through the filing process, either through a video or phone call. There is no preparation needed for this option.
- Virtual drop-off: If you go this route, you’ll submit your tax documents online and a volunteer will call you once your filing is ready for a review and DocuSign. This process will be faster than the virtual option.
- Site drop-off: Like the previous option, you’ll submit your tax documents before you speak with a volunteer, except you’ll take their materials to a VITA or TCE intake location. Here, you’ll receive a date to return to that location to review and sign in-person. Depending on the location, you might also have to schedule a time to drop off your documents at an intake location.
- Traditional: Just like before the pandemic, you’ll bring your tax documents to a VITA or TCE location and a volunteer will guide you through the filing process completely in-person. Most locations offering this option will require you to schedule a meeting in advance.
3. Research VITA and TCE sites and schedule an appointment
All VITA and TCE sites are listed here, on the IRS website. There are about two-dozen locations currently listed throughout the Philadelphia area, including several in New Jersey. Each listing provides the address of the location, a note on which program(s) they support, information on how to file with them and, if needed, how to schedule an appointment. If you have questions, you should contact the VITA or TCE site via the listed phone number or email address.
If you’re looking specifically for a TCE site, keep in mind that the majority of TCE sites are operated by AARP Foundation’s Tax Aide program. To locate the nearest AARP TCE Tax Aide site, use the AARP Site Locator Tool or call 888-227-7669.
4. Gather and prepare the right materials
Volunteers will be unable to help you if you don’t upload, drop off, or bring the correct materials. Here’s what you need:
- Proof of identification.
- Social security cards or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) letter for yourself, your spouse and your dependents. If you’re applying for an ITIN, you will need to provide proof of foreign status.
- Birth dates for yourself, your spouse and your dependents on the tax return.
- Wage and earning statements (Form W-2, W-2G, 1099-R,1099-Misc) from all employers
- Interest and dividend statements from banks (Forms 1099).
- Health Insurance Exemption Certificate, if received.
- A copy of last year’s federal and state returns, if available.
- Proof of bank account routing and account numbers for direct deposit such as a blank check.
- Total paid for daycare provider and the daycare provider’s tax identifying number such as their Social Security number or business Employer Identification Number.
- Forms 1095-A, B and C, Health Coverage Statements.
- Copies of income transcripts from IRS and state, if applicable.
To file taxes electronically on a married-filing-joint tax return, both spouses must be present to sign the required forms. Also, you need to set up a bank account, you should visit the FDIC website for information on where you can open an account online.
When mailing in these materials, make sure to recognize that not every address of a VITA or TCE location is the same as where the materials need to be delivered. At Saint Joseph’s University, for instance, copies of these materials should be sent to their P.O. Box in Merion Station—not to their Philadelphia address on City Avenue. Be sure to double-check that you’re sending it to the correct place.
Follow these steps, and you’ll be on your way to reviewing, signing and sending off your tax forms—with the knowledge that you’ve saved at least a couple hundred bucks in the process.
The Citizen is one of 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow the project on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash