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VITA Volunteers Prepare Free Tax Returns

Albert Mendez and Meilin ZhuIn a low-income, Hispanic community of the Near North Side, neighbors wait patiently every Saturday from February to April at the MD Anderson YMCA to have their taxes prepared. University of St. Thomas students and alumni, who are trained volunteers of Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA, provide free tax help to people who need assistance preparing their own taxes.

VITA is an IRS-supported program with several sites in Houston, but this site has been run for more than 30 years by Ramon Fernandez, assistant professor of accounting at St. Thomas. Students in his Income Tax II class, who have taken the prerequisite on individual tax, volunteer for at least four Saturdays, helping to interview clients or prepare the tax returns as part of a service-learning component.  This course is one of several service-learning courses offered at UST.

“The students really learn by doing,” Fernandez said. “They have to prepare that client’s tax return, do the interview, organize all their information and submit the return.”

The returns are prepared using VITA software and reviewed by veteran volunteers who are quality reviewers. 

“A lot of people who were indifferent to tax before volunteering in the VITA program find they really like tax,” Fernandez said. “Tax is an interesting puzzle we have to solve for each person. When students are faced with a real life situation, it takes on a lot more meaning for them.”

Fernandez said the free income tax assistance makes a difference to those who can’t afford a tax preparer and may not be able to do the return on their own.

“We are helping them get that burden off their back for filing a return,” he said. “Many people get refunds for the earned income tax credit or child tax credit. They’re appreciative of the refunds we’re helping them get.”

Volunteers Include Students and Tax Professionals

Jessica Reyes, right, helps Anna Loyd with her tax return. About 50 total volunteers help each season, including current and former UST students and University of Houston students Fernandez has taught. UST's Maria Quintero, budget coordinator, is also a longtime volunteer. Fernandez said the volunteers file about 1,000 returns each year. 

Patrick Nguyen, a 2007 BBA/MBA alumnus who is a CPA, works for the IRS as a revenue agent during the week and volunteers with VITA on the weekend. 

“Doing tax on both sides, it helps me see what problems preparers may run into,” Nguyen said. “It’s a different perspective seeing it from a different side of the table. Though, as IRS employees, we’re audited as well.”

Volunteering most years since 2003, Nguyen said he enjoys helping the community. He said the biggest way the program benefits clients is cost savings.

“A lot of preparers charge several hundred dollars to prepare a return,” Nguyen said, which can make a dent in any earned income tax credit or child tax credit they should receive. “If we can do it for free for them, then the intended recipients of the credit get their full credit.”

The free income tax filing service continues Saturdays from March 22 to April 12, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the MD Anderson YMCA, 705 Cavalcade St.

Completing Your Return with VITA

Rulin Zhang and Renzhi Liu get help from Maphyu Khin on their tax return. This VITA site does relatively simple returns and is open to people with income of $52,000 or less, or any UST faculty, staff or student.

The volunteers handle itemized deductions (Schedule A), interest and dividend income (Schedule B), simple capital gains and losses (Schedule D), and most of the personal credits, such as earned income credit, child tax credit, education credits, dependent care credit and more. 

The volunteers generally cannot do more complicated returns like self-employment income (Schedule C), rent and royalty and K-1 income (Schedule E), and the like.  Also, they will not do Form 1040NR, which is the form required of nonresident aliens and foreign (F-1 Visa) students. 

To have a return done, clients should bring a copy of their last year's return (if available), identification and social security cards of taxpayer/spouse/dependents, and current year documents such as W-2s, 1099s, bank and investment statements, 1098-T tuition and textbook payments, 1098-E student loan interest, 1098 mortgage interest and property taxes, child care provider statements and similar papers.