coronavirus

Millions of Americans Could Miss Out on Free Tax Help Due to Covid

Tom Purcell

Creighton University's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program has a new look this year, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead of in-person meetings, where people sit face-to-face with students volunteering to help them prepare and file their taxes, they'll conduct the program entirely online — through video and phone calls.  

"It's an important service and I'm hoping that we're able to make this work in spite of all the challenges that we're going to face," said Tom Purcell, an accounting professor and chair of the accounting department at Omaha, Nebraska-based Creighton.

The VITA program helps Americans that make $57,000 or less, or are disabled or limited English-speakers — many of whom were hard hit by the pandemic — file a tax return for free.

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Program changes may lead some to paying to file a return or not filing at all and missing out on a refund. "I sure hate to see even more piled on their plate because of this," Purcell said.

The IRS has run the VITA program for 50 years, along with the Tax Counseling for the Elderly, or TCE program, which provides free tax-filing aid to those over 60 years old. The programs help millions of Americans file each year — in 2019, more than 80,000 volunteers prepared 3.5 million federal tax returns, according to the agency.

Last year, VITA's numbers dropped when Covid hit in March, disrupting the tax season. In 2020, the program had about 10,000 fewer volunteers and prepared 1 million fewer tax returns than the year before, the IRS said.

This year, some experts worry that changes to VITA due to the pandemic will leave millions of Americans without the help they need to file in a time when submitting a return is extra important.

The most vulnerable may be hurt

The most vulnerable Americans may be hurt most by the technology changes to VITA, especially those who do not have access to high-speed internet or a computer, as many sites shift to online appointments.

"There used to be a way you could file a tax return with your telephone, and that no longer exists," said Elaine Maag, principal research associate in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. "That does create a barrier for low-income people."

The Creighton program has similar concerns. In previous years, a group of volunteers would travel to the Winnebago Indian Reservation in Nebraska to help the native community file their taxes for free.

This year, however, the university will not allow the trip. To continue to serve that community, Purcell is working out a solution — potentially having a sponsor in Winnebago set up a room of computers so people could come to Zoom appointments with VITA volunteers, as many of the clients from the reservation might have a smart phone but not a computer.

"You can image how difficult it will be to use even an iPhone," said Purcell. He added that in the past, the university's VITA program has served the homeless population, something that will be difficult to do this year.

"The biggest challenge we're preparing to face is a lot of clients who come from outside [the university] don't have extensive technology available to them or experience with it," said Scott Haveman, an accounting major and VITA volunteer at the university, adding that volunteers will likely have to assist both in technology and tax preparation.  

This tax season is going to be especially complicated

There's also concern for volunteers, who are facing an especially complicated and shorter-than-usual tax season due to the pandemic. The IRS pushed back the start to Friday, Feb. 12, but so far has not extended the filing deadline, which is April 15.

The coronavirus pandemic has also led to many late changes to tax law that could further disrupt filing for many Americans, especially low- to middle-income ones who qualify for the earned income tax credit or who haven't received economic impact [stimulus] payments or got the wrong amount.

The IRS requires that all VITA volunteers get certified each year, and in addition, the university has mandatory training sessions for its student volunteers to go over some of the specific changes that they will need to be on the lookout for this year.

Still, people should also do their own research and try to be aware of the credits they might qualify for this year, according to Tania Brown, a certified financial planner and financial coach at SaverLife, a nonprofit focused on financial security.

The rules are shifting and changing so rapidly that if they read something that was even a couple of months old, it could be incorrect, said Brown. "If they're going to someone, they're really going to have to be their own advocate."

How to get help filing taxes

To be sure, the VITA and TCE programs are still operating in person in some areas, and many are working with a hybrid approach of socially distanced in-person, as well as online help, according to the IRS. And, people who would be eligible for assistance through VITA are generally able to file for no cost via the online option through IRS Free File.

It's especially important that all Americans file a tax return this year to make sure they receive the credits and economic impact payments they're eligible for and to alert the IRS where to send any future stimulus payments, said Maag.

She added it's still worth it to see if a VITA site is open near you, if you're eligible.

"They are wonderful resources," she said. "Research shows time and again that they fill out accurate tax returns and it's a great benefit to communities."

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