USC law students offer free tax preparation for low-income residents and seniors

The University of South Carolina’s School of Law school is breaking down barriers for low-income individuals and the elderly this month by providing free assistance in preparing and filing their state and federal income tax returns.

Law student volunteers will prepare and file tax returns for residents with incomes under $54,000, and seniors 60 years of age and older.

The average cost to prepare a federal and state income tax return was $273 in 2015, according to the National Society of Accountants, but throughout March the law school is serving as one of several participating sites in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and Tax Counseling for the Elderly programs through a partnership with the Midlands VITA Coalition.

USC’s law school has been providing free tax preparation for eligible individuals for the past 20 years, said Pamela Robinson, director of the USC School of Law Pro Bono Program.

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  • Photo identification
  • Social Security or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) for each family member and working adult
  • W-2s, 1099s, 1098s and other forms
  • 1095-A if you received a tax credit from the healthcare.gov marketplace
  • If married and filing jointly, both individuals must be present

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“We’re not doing capital gains or sales of homes,” Robinson said. “We do a lot of earned income (tax credit). We make sure we’re getting low-income people all the money they are entitled to.”

Not only is the service convenient and free for tax filers, but the students gain valuable experience in tax law and build relationships with individuals and families that return year after year, Robinson said.

“I think it’s great to get involved with the community and know that there are other services the law school provides to help,” said Monique James, a second-year law student and first-time tax preparer. “I get to meet people from different backgrounds and connect with them, even though it’s (only for) a short amount of time.”

James said she has picked up tips on how to do taxes properly, and she finds that many of her classmates use the service themselves.

“Law school isn’t cheap,” she said. “And of course, I have to pay taxes. So it’s a good thing to know what I will be looking at on a W-2.”

The student volunteers take classes and undergo testing to be certified by the Internal Revenue Service to become preparers, Robinson said. They then work together to support each other and offer help when a classmate has a question.

“Our slogan for the tax program is ‘You benefit, we learn,’ ” Robinson said. “You have to do careful data entry. I think we feel the responsibility of making sure we tried our very hardest to do that.”

The law school students offer personal attention to each client by preparing the documents, assisting with the filing process and placing all documents in a folder. Each tax file is reviewed three times to ensure nothing has been left out and no mistakes have been made, Robinson said.

The volunteers have seen a number of penalties related to Affordable Care Act insurance, so Robinson picked one student to be the resident expert to tackle questions related to the complex healthcare law. “For us it’s just a reporting factor, (but) it’s almost like having a  specialist in that area,” she said.

Carol Mitchell brought her mother, Sallie, to have her taxes done and said the service benefits those who struggle to pay the high costs associated with the annual filing.

“My mother is 71 years old; she shouldn’t have to pay to have her taxes done,” Mitchell said. “They’re good, and we’ve had no problem with the IRS calling my mother.”

Sallie said filing her taxes now is quick and easy.

“You don’t have a waiting period,” she said. “It’s convenient.”

USC law students will hold tax-preparation sessions every Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon until March 26 at the School of Law lobby located at 701 Main St. in Columbia.

 

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