Free ‘VITA’ tax preparation programs now making appointments

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(WJHL) – Sally Potter had always done her own taxes. Then the Johnson City woman cashed in an IRA in 2018, and she knew she’d need some help. “I wanted to be sure I paid everything I needed to pay and wasn’t hit with a bill later,” Potter said.

Sally Potter

The problem was, Potter didn’t have a couple hundred bucks to spend at a paid preparer — even if it came off the back end of her refund. Fortunately, Potter saw a flyer in the Johnson City Public Library for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.

She learned she was eligible, made an appointment through Tusculum University’s program, showed up at the library on a Saturday morning and was in and out quickly.

The VITA program will kick off again throughout the Tri-Cities in less than two weeks. Volunteer preparers are trained and certified by the IRS. Providers in addition to Tusculum include Milligan College, United Way of Greater Kingsport and East Tennessee State University. Additional providers People Inc. and Appalachian Community Action (ACA) partner with United Way of Southwest Virginia, which provides support to help them and other community action agencies enhance their impact in a large area of Southwest Virginia.

A Tusculum student (right) prepares taxes for a client during the 2019 VITA season.

People with family income of less than $56,000 and those over 60 years old are eligible.

“This program helps people keep the hard earned money they have made in their pockets,” United Way of Southwest Virginia Director of Accountability and Strategic Impact Leann Vernon said. Her agency helps local community action agencies such as ACA recruit volunteers and expand their programs to serve more people.

Leann Vernon, United Way of SW Virginia

“The Community Action Agencies use VITA as a program to introduce people to all of the services they offer families in order to help them gain financial independence,” Vernon said.

Most of the programs operate by appointment. Those run by the schools help provide real-world experience for students in addition to helping the community.

“Two of our preparers from 2019 have graduated and are working as tax professionals this year,” said Harold Branstrator, the professor who oversees Tusculum’s program. Tusculum voluuteers prepared nearly 900 returns in 2019, saving clients an average of about $200 in paid preparer fees.

United Way’s Vernon said VITA volunteers also focus on making sure low and moderate-income people claim important credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit. Up to 20 percent of eligible filers don’t claim the credit.

“We want families to learn about the credits that are available so that they can get the benefits that are due to them.”

Tusculum’s clients last year received an average refund of $1,622 and had an average income of less than $29,000.

Even though Potter doesn’t have the additional IRA complication this year, she’s planning to use VITA anyway.

“They got me right in, I knew ahead of time what paperwork I needed to bring, so I had everything,” Potter said. “They knew everything to do and it was taken care of quickly. I definitely recommend it. You feel safe that everything’s done correctly that way.”

Click here for more information on specific VITA sites:

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