Harold “Bing” Billingsley thought for sure that the COVID-19 crisis would prevent him from getting free tax help from AARP Foundation Tax-Aide last year.
But the 86-year-old retired aeronautical engineer was surprised to find volunteers still assisting people safely during the pandemic. He dropped off his paperwork, then came back a few days later to review and sign the completed forms.
“It was a two-time operation, but both times were painless,” says Billingsley, of Madisonville. “I even got a small refund, which is always a good thing.”
Similar safety protocols, with low- and no-contact options, will be in place when the program begins in February.
In its 54th year, Tax-Aide is the nation’s largest free volunteer-run tax-preparation service. It’s open to everyone but focuses on low- to moderate-income people who are 50 or older or who cannot afford to pay for professional preparation.
Last year, IRS-certified Tax-Aide volunteers helped roughly 15,000 Tennesseans navigate tax codes, ensure proper credits and deductions, and file federal and state returns. Those filings resulted in about $11.3 million in refunds. Nationally, the program aided more than 1 million taxpayers, securing nearly $690 million in refunds.
How the program operates this year will depend on pandemic conditions at the local level. It’s possible that some or all sites will be open for normal in-person service, says Pam Holcombe, 64, of Greeneville, who is volunteer central region coordinator for Tax-Aide.
Computer-savvy taxpayers also have virtual options, Holcombe says. They can scan and upload their documents and have a video session with a Tax-Aide volunteer. Coaching is also available for those who want to use software to file for themselves, she says.
Volunteers are key
Tax-Aide isn’t just for AARP members, emphasizes Emily Paul, 62, of Athens, who is the program’s volunteer coordinator for Tennessee. “We’ll have college students come in and 90-year-olds.”
Regardless of age, people were so grateful that the service continued through the pandemic, Paul says.
“I heard a lot of, ‘I’m so glad y’all are able to do this,’” she recalls. “And I think that was true all across the state.”
But the program can’t run without volunteers. More than 330 helped out at 50 Tax-Aide sites in the state last year.
“People really value this program,” Holcombe says. “We can only continue so long as we have volunteers to do the work. We need volunteers.”
She notes that volunteers don’t have to have a background in accounting or tax preparation. They receive training on current tax laws and are IRS-certified. Preparers can handle most returns but not more complex cases, such as those involving a small business with employees, rental income or alternative minimum taxes.
Anyone who doesn’t want to do tax preparation can still help with administrative tasks, such as greeting people, providing tech support, helping organize, translating and more.
Volunteers can opt to work for as little as two hours a week during tax season, which is generally 10 weeks. Many, however, like working longer hours, Holcombe says.
Tax-Aide return preparation and electronic filing will begin on Tuesday, Feb. 1, and run through Friday, April 15. Some sites may be available in May to file amended returns.
Find a location near you at aarp.org/findtaxhelp, or call 888-227-7669. To volunteer, visit aarp.org/taxaide or email email@example.com.
Sheila Burke is a writer living in Nashville.
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This story is provided by AARP Tennessee. Visit the AARP Tennessee page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.
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