Leigh Hales, 75, has been preparing tax returns and answering the tough questions taxpayers have had since he “retired” in 1992. For free.
“It gives me something to do that keeps me sharp,” he said. “I am glad to freely give of my time to help people in need.”
Hales is the Eastern Washington coordinator for the American Association of Retired Persons’ tax-aide assistance program. The Internal Revenue Service sponsors the program, and it’s administered by AARP. Last year the program helped nearly two million taxpayers nationwide.
AARP gives preference to those 60 and older. However, according to AARP statistics for 2004, people from ages 18 to 49 accounted for 11 percent of those who received assistance.
Hales says that volunteers are willing to help college students as well. “We treat everybody the same,” he said.
Cheney has two locations for tax-aide, one at the Cheney Public Library, and a second at the Wren Pierson Community Center. Wren Pierson, which just began hosting the tax-aide this year, is offering the assistance on Wednesday from noon to 4 p.m., and the library is staffed with volunteers on Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.
According to a survey, 52 percent of those who received AARP tax assistance in 2004 would have had to pay for help otherwise. The others would be left to complete the returns themselves.
There are 32,000 volunteers that make up AARP tax-aide nationwide, and about 80 percent of them are retired. In Hales’ district, around Spokane, 65 volunteers are students from Gonzaga University. For those accounting students, this is a great way to supplement their education.
“A lot of people getting training for this program want to learn about their taxes and get the experience,” he said.
The training requires about 40 hours and is usually completed in December or January. The counselors must then pass a test to get IRS certification.
Because of the many different types of returns, there are higher levels of certification, and some volunteers, like Hales, are certified on all levels.
The training focuses on getting as many returns electronically filed as possible, because it is easier and more accurate. The IRS wants to have 70 percent of the income tax returns completed electronically in the future. The advantage to the IRS is that they save money by eliminating paperwork. But there is an advantage for taxpayers as well.
“Most people want to file electronically so they can get their money faster,” Hales says. “You go to the front of the line.”
“We can’t do everything, however,” he continued. “For example we had to turn a lady away today because her and her husband had made more than $90,000 last year. That’s too much money. They can afford to pay to have one done.”
However, those who do get help find themselves returning year after year. “I’ve been coming here the last three tax seasons, and they do a great job every time,” said one gentleman standing in line at the Valley Senior Citizen’s Center. Another said he took the day off from work to get his taxes completed.
Hales said in most of the returns they do people have overpaid during the year. “Most will probably be getting money back,” he said. Hales believes that too many people don’t file their taxes because of bad advice, and that too much money is being “left on the table.”
“A lot of people say they know all about taxes, but they probably don’t,” he says.
Hales said that he recently calculated a single mother’s 2004 tax return, along with her 2003 and 2002 returns, because she hadn’t bothered to complete them– thanks to some bad advice. “She’ll be getting a check for about $10,000,” he said. “People that haven’t filed for the last few years can still file.”
Kathleen Scott, who manages to take Sunday off for church, does returns six days per week. “The main thing is you have to like people. I like the one-on-one aspect,” she said, before getting down to business at the South Hill Library location.
“Most of the people I help come back to me every year,” she said. Almost as if scripted, a former patron of Scott’s, who just walked through the doorway, joked, “Like an old penny, I show every year.”
Scott also does “shut-ins,” where the person is unable to make it to one of the sites, because of illness or because they can’t drive. She also makes special trips to retirement homes.
Recently, Scott made a trip to someone’s home because they were unable to make it to one of the locations after being involved in an auto accident. Scott says she will come and help anyone who calls her.
Scott genuinely enjoys helping people, and when her husband passed away he told her to keep it up because he knew that she loved it. “I’m the one who is really getting something back here,” Scott said.
In the course of an average day, which usually lasts more than the three to four hours they are open, a volunteer may complete between six to 10 tax returns. Rarely stopping for breaks, most volunteers finish one return, only to quickly get started on another.
The atmosphere on site is one of polite order, and everyone seems happy to be there. After walking in the door at the Spokane Community College tax-site, a volunteer named Rosie stands ready to sign taxpayers in. Rosie is there to make sure people have all the necessary information ready to complete a return and to make sure that nobody loses his or her place in line.
A tax volunteer then proceeds to complete the return and then follows up with a step-by-step review. Accuracy is their number one objective, so they bring another volunteer over to review and check the work.
When they complete the return, copies are made of all paperwork. They take the remaining W-2 earnings summaries and stuff them into a large envelope with the copies.
At the end, a pleasure-doing-business-with-you handshake is given, and the process is complete.
“I’ve done some other volunteer work but this gives me more satisfaction than anything else,” Hales said.
Tax-aide sites are located in schools, community centers, libraries, government buildings, malls and other convenient places. For the site nearest you, call (888)AARPNOW or go to the Web site www.aarp.org/taxaide.
To be prepared, according to the AARP, bring the following to any AARP tax-aide site:
1. Current year’s tax forms and preparation booklet;
2. Copy of last year’s income tax return;
3. W-2 forms from each employer;
4. Unemployment compensation statements;
5. ID, and Social Security card;
6. For students, anything that shows tuition paid out of pocket, or interest paid on student loans for the year;
7. All or any 1099 forms (1099-INT, 1099-DIV, 1099-misc, SSA-1099, etc.)