If you earn $57,000 a year or less, or have disabilities or limited English language skills, you may be eligible for free in-person help to prepare your tax returns. You’re also eligible if you’re over 60, regardless of income.
IRS-certified volunteers provide free basic income tax return preparation with electronic filing to qualified individuals under the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, known as VITA. A similar program, Tax Counseling for the Elderly, offers free help to those age 60 or older. Some VITA locations also provide assistance on the Free File system to those whose incomes are as much as $72,000.
Many of the IRS-certified volunteers who provide tax counseling are retirees or accounting students associated with non-profit organizations that receive IRS grants.
VITA sites are generally located at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools, shopping malls and other locations across the country. To find one near you, use the VITA locator tool or call 800-906-9887. For TCE sites, use this AARP locator tool or call 888-227-7669.
And yes, free means free. For those who meet the eligibility requirements, there are no hidden fees or expenses with the VITA and TCE programs. But although these programs deliver valuable services, there are some things to be cautious about. Chief among them is that not all volunteers are created equal. Some will be better than others, depending on their tax law expertise and how complicated your taxes are. As such, taxpayers are always advised to double-check their return before filing it. If you normally do your taxes yourself, you can simply use the service as a great second pair of eyes.
Here’s what you need to know before using the program:
Not All Locations Deliver The Same Services.
While all VITA sites use the same IRS software and guidelines, the client experience varies. Some locations require appointments, while others take walk-ins. Hours of operation often depend on the availability of volunteers.
The closer it gets to April 15, the higher the demand on VITA site services. To avoid waiting, act sooner rather than later. It may be faster to use the File Free program with a VITA volunteer on hand to answer questions as needed, but your wait time may vary with demand.
One thing that won’t vary is the training program and certification test that all VITA program volunteers must go through. Even volunteers who aren’t handling returns but serving in the capacity of greeters and receptionists must pass a test on ethics and confidentiality.
Not Every Tax Situation Can Be Handled.
VITA and TCE volunteers are able to deal with many tax situations, but they typically can’t prepare returns with significant investment income. While they can certainly handle bank interest, more complicated scenarios ― including returns with rental income ― may be referred to a paid tax professional.
In the same vein, these services are intended for individuals, not businesses. Business returns that need to account for inventory, depreciation and employee costs are outside the expertise of VITA volunteers. It’s smart to check with your local site to make sure your situation can be accommodated.
The IRS insists that every return handled by these programs be reviewed by at least three people: the volunteer preparing the return, the taxpayer who signs the form and a separate quality control volunteer who double-checks the work.
To get started, visit the IRS website.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.