Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mary needs information on starting a free income tax preparation...

Subject: Program at my Church

I am interest in starting a free tax income preparation for low income family at my church this year.  Is there any information how I can get help setting this program up.  What are the criteria for starting a site under VITA program.  Please advise me and let me know how to go about accomplishing this . My phone number is xxx-xxx-xxxx or e-mail  Thank you in advance for your help.

Mary xxxxxx

The above email was sent to .  Although this response is not provided by the IRS, the answer is provided here in the hope that it may help others with similar objectives.

Dear Mary,

Your interest in setting up a center to help low income families prepare their income tax returns is commendable.    The VITA program is sponsored by the IRS in conjunction with the state income tax authority, and usually run out of an office of one of these organizations.  As a site coordinator I work closely with the SPEC Relationship Manager at my local IRS office.  When I first started volunteering at VITA, I was a preparer at an established site, and site coordinator at another small site.   I recently had the opportunity to start a new site during the off-season, so my experience is pretty recent, and it was a successful launch simply because of the supporting structure.

The IRS provides publication 1084, IRS Volunteer Coordinator's Handbook which is a guide and a checklist of activities to running a site successfully.  The 2008 Tax Year version is the latest one available at the time this is written, and it is expected that the 2009 Tax Year version will be available soon.  You can download a copy of it from the IRS web site or from  which has some additional publications that may help.  However, while it is it detailed and comprehensive, a first look may be intimidating the first time you look through it.  So if you are trying to start a new site,  there are several pieces that have to be coordinated and fall in place.  One way is to sign up to be a VITA tax volunteer for the first season while you become familiar with the system and the support you can expect.

If you do want to get started either as a volunteer or as a coordinator, the most practical way is to sign up through  online signup form and indicate your interest in the comments section.  The information is forwarded to VITA Headquarters, from which it makes its way to the IRS Office and the SPEC Relationship Manager who should try to get in touch with you.    You need to provide the name of the site, and the dates and times  all that is required is the name of the site and the days, dates and times it is expected to be open.   This will get your site onto the IRS database of VITA sites so that taxpayers looking for the service can be referred to your site, and will help provide a site identification number with which to apply for an EFIN (Electronic Filing Identification Number) - which is necessary if you plan to offer electronic filing of tax returns.

Of course, when the taxpayers come to the site you must be prepared for them.  You will need support from the place where you plan to offer the service, such as the Church which needs to provide the environment in which to function, and to offer a place for taxpayers to sign in, wait and be served.
Arrangements must be made for laptops or PCs to run Tax Preparation software and printers.  The IRS loans some equipment, and the rest are provided by volunteers, the hosting organization, or a third party such as the United Way.

You need to recruit volunteers for the site.  Volunteers may come from the IRS, non profit organizations, accounting students, or possibly from among the members of the Church where you plan to provide the services.   Regardless of the source of volunteers,  they have to be certified by taking an open book test either on paper or online.  Experienced tax professionals and returning volunteers should have no problem with the certification test and there are training classes offered for volunteers new to the tax preparation activity.

If you are planning to offer services for anything beyond the simplest returns, it is necessary to get trained in the tax preparation software - hand-preparing returns on paper forms and using calculators to add, subtract and multiply numbers and making sure that nothing is overlooked can be very challenging.

If you have the place, equipment and volunteers, you need to get clients or taxpayers to help.  That means appropriate publicity in addition to the listing in the IRS database.  There needs to be an information number for people calling in for details of the service - and that is best handled by someone who is available to answer the phone.  You need to decide whether to take only walk-in taxpayers,  or to take appointments or both.   Whichever way it is, balance is important.  If there are too many volunteers and not enough taxpayers, volunteers will lose their enthusiasm.  If there are too many taxpayers needing service and not enough volunteers, you need to deal with irate and impatient taxpayers.

If this is something you think you will enjoy doing, I encourage you to go for it - it may be time consuming but the feeling of accomplishment will be worth it.  If you are unable to spare that much time to the project, the better course may be to sign up as a tax volunteer.

If you have any further thoughts or comments, you may put it in the comments section, and the answers will be provided here.

Best wishes for a successful tax season.