Free Tax Preparation Available For Local Seniors
By: Debra Lawless
It’s that time of year again—tax season.
Need help filing your taxes? The Chatham, Harwich and Orleans Councils on Aging (COA) can help. For those who are ages 50 and over and of low and moderate income, appointments are available with the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide services. The services are free.
“This is very popular,” says Debbie Mayhew, Chatham COA department assistant. To be sure you are able to schedule an appointment with the Tax-Aide tax preparers, it’s best to book an appointment now.
Terry Hendrix of Eastham serves as the Tax-Aide coordinator for Chatham, Harwich and Wellfleet and training coordinator for the Cape and Islands. He estimates that the Tax-Aide program saves seniors the $200 to $400 that a commercial tax preparer would charge them to prepare their returns. The Tax-Aide tax preparers are not allowed to accept compensation or gifts of any kind for their work.
Now in his 70s, Hendrix worked as a finance director at Digital and other companies. Five years ago, he began volunteering through Tax-Aide after a neighbor who was involved with the program suggested he also take part in it.
New volunteers undergo a CORI criminal record check and then begin an extensive five-day training program. Returning volunteers take a two-day refresher course each year. Training began back in December and January for the approximately 75 volunteers on the Cape.
Once training has been completed, everyone passes an IRS certification test either online or in writing. The three parts of the test are interview intake, standard of conduct and tax law. The tax law part of the test consists of 35 questions. The volunteers also work through four cases in a practice lab. The focus of the training is seniors’ tax needs.
Volunteers involved in the program are current tax preparers as well as retired CPAs, college professors and IRS employees, Hendrix says.
The average taxpayer on the Cape might be a retired couple, or a widower or widower living on social security, a pension, an IRA, and perhaps some stocks. Maybe the taxpayer rents out their house for part of the year, or runs a small art or carpentry business, for example.
Some seniors have specific tax situations pertinent only to seniors. For example, something called the “senior circuit breaker” pertains to certain seniors who own or rent residential property in Massachusetts as their principal residence. This tax break allows a person over age 65 who pays over 10 percent of his or her income in taxes and half of water and sewer fees to get $1,170 back in the form of a refundable credit on the state personal income tax form. It is also possible to file amended forms for previous “circuit breaker” credits.
“It’s a nice break,” Hendrix says.
While both signatures are needed to file a married couple’s return, Hendrix says he happily accommodates various situations. If one member of the couple cannot come into the building, he will go out to the car to collect that person’s signature.
The tax software used is contracted directly with the IRS. And 99.9 percent of all returns are e-filed on the same day, with an exception if a document is missing.
“The IRS loves us because our error rate is very low,” Hendrix says. By examining previous tax returns, the preparers catch anything that might have inadvertently been omitted. Also, each return is looked over by a second preparer before it is filed. In fact, the error rate of the entire Cape is one of the lowest, at .2 or .3 percent.
In Chatham, appointments began on Feb. 8 and will be scheduled on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. through April 13. Each appointment lasts 90 minutes. All appointments are in person this year and will follow the health and safety advice of the Chatham Board of Health. All Tax-Aide counselors are vaccinated against COVID-19 and it is requested that seniors be vaccinated if they are able. Masks must be worn, and hand sanitizer is available.
Chatham residents should call the Chatham COA at 508-945-5190 to schedule an appointment. Pre-appointment tax packets can be picked up at the Chatham COA.
Harwich residents should call the Harwich COA at 508-430-7550 to book a slot. Harwich residents can pick up pre-appointment tax packets at the Harwich COA on Oak Street. The packet must be completed and all documents included. Appointments for both Chatham and Harwich residents will be held at the Chatham Community Center’s Club Room.
Orleans residents should call the Orleans COA at 508-255-6333 to book an appointment at the 150 Rock Harbor Rd. senior center. The sessions are held in Orleans on Mondays through April 11.
Tax-Aide began through the AARP in 1968 and is now the largest free, volunteer-based tax assistance preparation program in the United States. It is not necessary to be an AARP member to participate.
If you would like to volunteer your expertise with Tax-Aide for the 2023 tax season, contact Paul O’Keefe at email@example.com.