VITA: Your Free Tax Preparation Solution

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Put more money in your pocket this tax season, and help your neighbors file their taxes for free! Today we’re talking with Cody Carver, Director of Community Initiatives and Investments at United Way of Greenville County, about the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program and how it offers free tax preparation help to those who qualify. Find out if you’re eligible, what documents you’ll need, and how to schedule your appointment. We’ll also hear from Cody about the tremendous difference VITA volunteers make in our community and how you can get started volunteering.

Links:

United Way Greenville County

MyFreeTaxes.com

SC 211

Transcript

Katy Smith:

[0:02] It’s tax season, as I’m sure you know, and that means any of you with a W-2 or 1099 or who needs to get your taxes done may be feeling a little stressed.

Well, stress no more. Hopefully, today’s episode will be helpful to you.

I’m Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville, and I’m here today with Cody Carver, Director of Community Initiatives and Investments with United Way of Greenville County to talk about the VITA program or Volunteer Income Tax Assistance.

Cody will talk about the huge impact VITA has for taxpayers in our area, who’s eligible, what you need to do to get your taxes prepared, and how you can get involved as a volunteer.

Note, you don’t have to be an accountant to make a huge difference in folks’ lives.

Cody, thanks so much for joining us today to talk about what is really such an important program, such a generous program to residents who live in our community, and one that is not known enough, in my opinion.

Cody Carver:

[0:59] Yeah, Katy, thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

Katy Smith:

[1:01] The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program has a long history of making a huge difference in people’s lives.

Can you tell us what you celebrated in 2023 for impact you guys had?

Cody Carver:

[1:13] Yeah, absolutely, Katy. So we’re really excited to announce that in the 2022 tax season, so in the past year that we just completed in 2023, for our entire county coalition, so that is nine counties in South Carolina, we completed 8,612 tax returns.

So that estimates a total economic impact of around $13.3 million going directly back into the pockets of our community members.

Katy Smith:

[1:37] Oh my gosh, that is astonishing.

Cody Carver:

[1:39] Yeah, that’s amazing.

Katy Smith:

[1:40] And it’s all done completely for free and completely by volunteers.

Cody Carver:

[1:44] Correct.

Katy Smith:

[1:45] I love it. Okay, so can you tell us who is a good candidate for having their taxes prepared by a VITA volunteer?

Cody Carver:

[1:51] Yeah, great question, Katy. So I think really anyone is a good candidate for getting their taxes done by a VITA volunteer.

There’s two access points to access the VITA services. The first access point would be our in-person services.

So anyone or any household that makes $60,000 a year or less can get their taxes done completely for free in person by one of our IRS-certified volunteers.

And the second access point to VITA is an online platform called MyFreeTaxes.com.

So an individual can simply go to MyFreeTaxes.com and if they make $79,000 a year or less, they can get their taxes done completely for free online.

It’s similar to TurboTax, but it is a trustworthy, safe online site through the federal government that individuals can go online and do their taxes by themselves completely for free.

Katy Smith:

[2:37] That is amazing. I mean, and two great groups.

So let’s think about those $60,000 and under folks who might be getting beckoned as they drive down the street these days.

I don’t know if you all have seen folks dressed in various costumes standing on corners.

Many have headphones on and are doing clever dances to entice me to pull in their parking lot.

So what is the benefit of going to a VITA volunteer rather than to one of those paid tax preparers?

Cody Carver:

[3:05] Yeah, Katy, that’s a great question. So I think the first benefit of coming to VITA rather than a paid preparer is that it is completely for free.

There are no gimmicks to that. Our services are 100% free.

Rather than going to a paid preparer who would charge you somewhere around $250 to $300 just to get your taxes done, and that is for a basic W-2, and that charge would obviously increase for the more complicated and more advanced that your tax return is.

I think the second benefit to coming to VITA is that our our volunteers are trained to look out for your benefit and to get the most out of your tax return as you possibly can, to get you every credit, every deduction that we possibly can to put dollars directly back into our community members’ pockets.

Katy Smith:

[3:48] That’s outstanding.

So if someone is listening and they’re excited about potentially exploring VITA, what does someone need to do to have their taxes prepared?

Cody Carver:

[3:56] Yeah, Katy. So all they have to do is call 2-1-1. It’s as simple as that.

I’m just calling 2-1-1 and you’ll be connected to one of our call center specialists and they will make an appointment for you that is most efficient for your needs.

So closest to your location and also an appointment that fits your availability within your schedule.

So again, all you have to do is call 2-1-1 and you can also visit the United Way website to find more information on VITA and how to schedule an appointment and also access the online platform of MyFreeTaxes.com.

Katy Smith:

[4:23] Easy.

Cody Carver:

[4:24] Yeah.

Katy Smith:

[4:24] And so if for folks that don’t know what 211 as a number is, they might know 911 or 811 for power lines. What is 211?

Cody Carver:

[4:33] Yeah, so it’s very similar to 911, but it’s for non-emergency needs.

So anything like finding the closest food pantry to your location, information on how to help with your rental and utility bills, any crisis that you may be facing, 211 is a great resource to go to access that information and be connected with local community resources in your community.

Katy Smith:

[4:53] Fantastic. Okay, so if I’ve signed up, I got my appointment, what can I expect when I go in to have my taxes prepared?

Cody Carver:

[5:00] Yeah, great question. So we ask that taxpayers show up about 15 minutes before their appointment time just to fill out all the intake forms and gather all their tax documents that are necessary.

So when you arrive, we ask that you bring your ID. And the most important thing that we often see the taxpayers leave behind is their social security cards.

So you do have to have your social security card to file your taxes.

If you are married and filing jointly, both taxpayers have to be present to complete that return.

And we need IDs and social security cards for both of those taxpayers.

Katy Smith:

[5:30] So I come in, I need to bring my ID.

My social security card, my spouse, if I’m filing jointly with someone else and they need to bring the same things, what else do we need to have in hand?

Cody Carver:

[5:39] Yeah, absolutely. So all of your tax documents, so things like a W-2, a 1099, any social security benefit statements, and any other income sources that you may have.

If you’ve attended college, your institution should provide a 1098-T form and any related expenses from college or technical schools, a statement for any child care provider services that you incurred.

And Affordable Care Act statements, that one is really important for this year.

So if you run Obamacare, it is important to bring that form 1095A, B, or C.

And then a copy of last year’s tax return if you do have that available.

Katy Smith:

[6:14] Great. And what I am hearing you say in things like child care statement, college, Obamacare, is this is where you’re getting the extra money for folks.

Cody Carver:

[6:25] Absolutely.

Katy Smith:

[6:26] This is where you’re finding additional benefits in the tax code that people may not have been aware of.

Cody Carver:

[6:30] Correct. And the great thing about our appointment line is when you call 2-1-1 to get that appointment scheduled, they are trained to ask these questions to figure out which documents you need to bring in, which credits you may qualify for beforehand, so you can prepare for your appointment and go ahead and gather all those documents before the appointment is scheduled.

Katy Smith:

[6:46] So it sounds maybe if you’re listening, like a little bit of a hassle getting your file folder together.

But just think of the money you will get back in return for having done that bit of homework.

Cody Carver:

[6:55] Absolutely.

Katy Smith:

[6:57] Now, people might be listening and think, now you said this is powered by volunteers.

Do they know what they’re doing? I will say as a little pitch that my father-in-law is one of the VITA tax preparers and has been for years and years.

And prior to his retirement, he was the controller of many big companies.

He knows what he’s doing and he relishes nothing more than helping find money for people and has done it year after year for some of the same people.

So I can tell you all listening, you’re going to get some qualified people.

But Cody, maybe you can tell us more about what volunteers go through to get ready to be tax preparers.

Cody Carver:

[7:31] Yeah, absolutely, Katy. And I’ll start by saying that this is my first year at United Way.

This is my first tax season and my first year leading this awesome team that I get to lead that directly does the work of the VITA program.

And so I decided that I would go through the training myself just to see what our volunteers have to face when they come in.

And it’s important, me as the leader of the program, just be able to step in and help with any VITA appointments as needed.

So I can say that the training is very thorough. It’s done completely through the IRS.

So it’s done by the federal government, and they’re trained through the IRS.

It’s an online platform that runs through all tax laws that are necessary to the appointment, volunteer standard code of conduct.

So we understand confidentiality and the sensitive information that we’re dealing with concerning community members’ forms and documents so we know how to handle all those forms confidentially and all the tax laws that are needed to complete a tax return efficiently.

And all of our tax returns are quality-reviewed. So you will have a tax preparer that completes your return and then a second tax preparer will actually come in and review the return that is completed to make sure it is done correctly and efficiently to get you the most benefit out of your return.

Katy Smith:

[8:47] That’s outstanding.

Cody Carver:

[8:48] Yeah, absolutely.

Katy Smith:

[8:49] Really impressive. All right. So if I’m hearing you as a volunteer, and I think I feel really called to help in this way, what would I need to do to sign up to be a volunteer?

Cody Carver:

[8:59] Yeah. So to sign up to be a volunteer, it’s actually pretty simple. You go to our website.

So it’s unitedwaygc.org. And under the Get Involved tab, you’ll see directly it says Volunteer with VITA.

So once you click on that tab, there will then be a form that you fill out with your information.

And then one of our lovely staff members at United Way will reach out to you to schedule a time to chat and share all the training materials with you.

Since the season has already started, it will be a self-paced training.

So you will go through that training on your own on the online platform provided through the IRS.

Obviously, our staff and volunteers are there to assist you, walk alongside you, and help you complete that training.

But if you are interested in doing this in the future, starting sometime around in the fall, around the October, November timeline, we do start hosting in-person trainings and we’ll walk you through what that training looks like and help you complete that test at the end of the training to then be certified to be a tax preparer.

Katy Smith:

[9:52] Wonderful. I hope that some of you are listening and you think that sounds like me. I’m retired.

I do the books for my house and I kind of like it and I’d like to help do it for someone else.

If you though are listening and say, I love to help the program sounds important, but man, do I hate numbers. Are there other ways people can help?

Cody Carver:

[10:10] Yeah, absolutely, Katy. So we have about three different roles that you can partake in as a VITA volunteer.

The first and most simple role would be a greeter. So you don’t have to complete the tax law training.

There’s only a certain section of trainings you would have to complete to be a greeter.

And you would simply be at the door and greet our taxpayers as they come into the site, help them complete their intake forms, and then scan that intake form, help them make sure that that they have all their documents ready to go for the tax appointment, and then connect them with a tax preparer for their actual tax appointment.

So that would be the first role that you can play. The second one would be a tax preparer.

That one’s pretty self-explanatory. You would take all the tax law trainings necessary to then be certified to prepare community members’ taxes.

And the third role is a site coordinator. So you would take all of the tax law training as well, and then you would oversee all the volunteers at the site and coordinate the day-to-day operations of that VITA site.

Katy Smith:

[11:06] What are some groups or people who you see being kind of prime candidates for volunteerism?

Cody Carver:

[11:11] Yeah, great question, Katy. So obviously our retirees are great candidates to be a VITA volunteer. They have the time on their hands.

Maybe you’re a retired accountant and you have experience working with numbers or working and doing corporate taxes.

This would be a great opportunity for you to put that skill set to use.

But also it’s a great opportunity for high schoolers and college students that are looking for that additional experience and looking to give back to their community and serve the community that they live in.

We see a lot of college students come to us that are maybe accounting majors and they’re looking to get that additional experience to put on the resume before going into the workforce.

And that’s one thing that we love about the VITA program is it has so many benefits to the community other than just getting your taxes done for free.

There’s a workforce development component to it, a resume-building component to it that just allows our volunteers to get that hands-on experience in the community before they enter the workforce.

And maybe you’re a high school student that is looking to get some great experience to add to a college application.

This is a wonderful opportunity and to provide you that hands-on experience.

Katy Smith:

[12:11] I love that. And honestly, I lifted up people that love numbers and are good at numbers.

I suppose you can’t hate numbers and do this. But given the good training that you have, if you are someone who likes to help, I’m, you know, in any way you are making such a difference in a family’s life.

And you’re really getting in a kind of private space with them to let them reveal to you what’s going on in their financial life, which is uncomfortable to people.

And if you are there to help make folks at ease, to let them know that you’re their partner and helping them, you know, have financial success, and then you’re backed by that IRS training, I mean, that could be interested for someone who’s interested in social work, therapy, working with families in any way that you want to see succeed.

Cody Carver:

[12:54] Absolutely, Katy. And that is why we also provide our volunteers with so many additional community resources to have in the offices and in the appointment spaces where they’re conducting the appointments.

Just like you said, it is such a sensitive time for our community members, and they often share a lot and share some of the hardships that they are facing.

And so then we’re able to provide them with additional resources to connect them to whatever community resource they may need to then assist them in that hardship they’re facing at that time.

Katy Smith:

[13:22] That’s great. And then I can imagine that once you work through one tax season with someone and they think, oh man, I didn’t know about that.

I’m going to capitalize on that next year. Then when they come back to you in 2025 for the 2024 tax year, man, they’re ready.

Cody Carver:

[13:37] Yeah, absolutely. You start to build those relationships. It’s amazing.

Katy Smith:

[13:40] That is great. People in our community are probably familiar with the work of United Way and that it is often a backbone for these big community-wide solutions.

But if you’re not, people might be curious, why United Way? Why this for United Way? Can you address that?

Cody Carver:

[13:56] Yeah, Katy, that’s a great question. And I think first of all, it’s important to understand that United Way is entering the second year of our How We Win strategy.

So it’s our strategy for community change, which really addresses two reality checks.

And the first reality check is that poverty is persistent. Year over year, month over month, poverty is persistent in our community.

And the second reality check is that Greenville is booming. So with those two reality checks in mind, why is it so hard for our low-income community members to increase their earnings?

Well, United Way has commissioned this new strategy that focuses on four key barriers that we’re trying to reduce to increase our community members’ earnings, and those barriers are housing, education, transportation, and childcare.

And so one of the things that we think about when increasing individuals’ earnings is the VITA program.

The VITA program is a great example of a tangible program that United Way is putting in place to address those barriers to higher earnings because VITA puts money directly back into the pockets of community members who need it most.

It is such a tangible way to see the work of United Way, the work of our community come together in a collective way.

Katy Smith:

[15:02] Beautiful. Well, Cody, I’m so grateful to you for joining us today and to the work of United Way of Greenville County.

If folks want to learn more, can you tell them again where they can go online?

Cody Carver:

[15:12] Yeah, absolutely. So unitedwaygc.org and you’ll see the Get Involved tab and click to volunteer with VITA or to schedule that VITA appointment call 211.

Katy Smith:

[15:22] Fabulous. Well, thanks for being with us, and good luck this tax season.

Cody Carver:

[15:25] Thank you, Katy. Thanks so much for having me.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

Image via Kyle Gutschow Photography from Getty Images Pro on Canva.

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