For ABA YLD member Adam Landy, tax season can be a rewarding time of year. In 2010, Landy and other members of the South Carolina Bar Young Lawyers Division (SC YLD) began a partnership with the United Way of the Midlands and The Cooperative Ministry to provide free income tax preparation through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program. The program was an instant success, and the SC YLD’s VITA program gained national recognition as the first place recipient of the ABA YLD Service to the Public Award in 2011.
“The reason why [the SC YLD] got involved with VITA is because other tax preparers are charging excessive fees for preparing basic returns and also offering misleading and costly refund loans—or worse. Individuals were not filing returns at all and losing valuable credits,” said Landy.
Landy and approximately 10 other young lawyers from the South Carolina Bar trained to prepare basic income tax returns through a web-based, self-paced certification process provided by the IRS.
The SC YLD along with the United Way of the Midlands and The Cooperative Ministry sponsored “Super Saturday” sessions when volunteers collectively prepared returns for over 150 families during the past two filing seasons. The VITA initiative was an immediate success, and at the Super Saturday event on February 4, 2012, the SC YLD, volunteers from the United Way and the Cooperative Ministry, and law students from the University of South Carolina School of Law prepared approximately 100 income tax returns on that one day alone.
“It is a great program. For many of the families we help, their tax refunds allow them to catch up on bills, or obtain services that have been put off, whether it is for their home or for their children,” said Landy.
The VITA program is a by-product of the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which called for an increase in taxpayer education programs. What started at a few locations in the early 1970s, blossomed to over 12,000 VITA sites across the country. For the 2011 filing season, the IRS reported that the VITA Program accounted for 3.2 million tax returns nationwide. Because most VITA sites are volunteer-based, and the commitment is seasonal, it is likely that your affiliate can get involved and make a significant impact in the community.
How Your Affiliate Can Get Involved
Generally, VITA clinics start to recruit volunteers from late November to early January. The earliest that volunteers can complete the certification test is usually the first week of November, when the IRS training materials are updated. Instead of starting a VITA clinic from the ground up, it may be easier and more efficient for your affiliate to get involved with an existing VITA program in your community.
“[The SC YLD] was fortunate to partner with The Cooperative Ministry and the United Way of the Midlands’ VITA program. They already had the framework in place; however, their greatest challenge was recruiting volunteers, and that’s where we assisted,” said Landy.
A good place to start looking for established VITA programs is your nearby law school. A large number of law schools have their own VITA clinics, some of which have been around for years, and prepare a considerable number of returns every year.
The VITA clinic at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law is a good example. Loyola’s VITA clinic has been around for 20 years, and in 2009 and 2010, the clinic received recognition from the ABA Law Student Division as one of the best VITA programs in the country, an award it shared with Barry University School of Law. In 2011, Loyola’s VITA clinic volunteers prepared over 750 returns. In addition, the clinic participates in a tax coalition that provides financial education to low-income members of the community.
“We would welcome help from any YLD affiliate. We already work with several organizations in the community, and we are always looking for ways to add consistency to the program,” said Andrew Piacun, the Assistant Dean of Administration and VITA Site Coordinator at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.
For Piacun, his involvement is as much about rebuilding as it is about refunds. Piacun began working with the program immediately after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region.
“People lost everything because of Katrina. Getting involved with VITA was an opportunity for us to give back to all of those who were involved in helping us rebuild,” said Piacun.
If your area law school does not have a VITA program, consider reaching out to your local United Way or AARP office, because both organizations have significant ties to the VITA program. If these organizations are active in your community, odds are they have a VITA presence as well.
If you still cannot locate a program to assist, reach out to the Stakeholder Partnerships, Education and Communication (SPEC) Division of the IRS. SPEC is responsible for building relationships with key stakeholder groups. The territory manager in your area can help your affiliate locate local tax coalitions and established VITA programs. To get in touch with your SPEC territory manager, complete Form 14310 and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thinking Outside the Box
Participation in the VITA program is not limited to preparing returns. Last year, the Seminole County Young Lawyers Division (Florida) sponsored a Super Saturday event at Barry University School of Law’s VITA clinic. Barry alumnus and VITA volunteer Justin Schafer, along with other Seminole County YLD members, contributed by supplying the site with breakfast and helping with logistical support.
“Since the sites open early, some of the volunteers do not get a chance to get coffee or anything to eat, so doing something simple like buying coffee and donuts can really lift everyone’s spirits,” said Schafer. “It was great for everyone involved. On top of the great service that the volunteers were offering, we were able to get publicity for the Seminole County Young Lawyers Division, and law students were able to network with attorneys that are actively involved in the community,” Schafer added.
Although the VITA program is a terrific opportunity for your affiliate to get involved, participation does not come without obstacles. If your affiliate is looking to participate, keep in mind the following issues you may need to address and overcome along the way.
Confront the Stigma. One of the biggest obstacles is convincing volunteers that they do not need tax experience to participate.
“There is a huge stigma associated with taxes. Some people may be reluctant to volunteer because they do not even prepare their own taxes,” said Landy. “The reality is that the software and the training program make everything easy. The only way you will not succeed is if you do not follow directions.”
TaxWise, the program used by the IRS, is set up like an interview process, and it makes tax decisions and computations based on the information gathered during the interview. Generally, volunteers will be successful if they understand the following concepts: filing status, exemptions, and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Organize and Train Early. The best way to eliminate any fears about volunteering is to get involved as soon as possible. Because the training materials are updated annually in early November, volunteers can begin training two months before the filing season. The training program allows volunteers to train and certify at their own pace, and depending on your experience level, the Link and Learn training can take anywhere from two to six hours. If your affiliate’s volunteers wait until mid-January to begin training, they may become overwhelmed and drop out of the program.
Continuity and Turnover. A significant challenge for VITA sites is the lack of continuity. Because sites are staffed by volunteers, the consistency of each site can change from week to week. The SC YLD knows this all too well. After a successful filing season in 2010, Landy stated there was a decrease in the number of SC YLD VITA volunteers. To make up for the shortfall, the SC YLD sought and received assistance from law students from the University of South Carolina School of Law’s Pro Bono Program and its director, Pam Robinson. In 2011, more than a dozen law students participated in the VITA initiative and performed client intake, conducted initial client interviews, and even assisted in preparing several income tax returns.
“This was a great way to bridge the gap between attorneys and future attorneys,” said Landy.
The Buddy System. A successful VITA site will pair two volunteers with every client. This allows inexperienced volunteers to partner with experienced preparers and quells the jitters of first-time preparers. This method only works, however, if the site is staffed with an adequate number of volunteers.
Can’t Wait to Get Started?
It is never too early to get involved. All of the necessary training materials are readily available online. Publications 1084, 4012, and 4491 are great resources for volunteers to refer to during the training process. Affiliates can also find information about VITA on the IRS website at www.irs.gov/app/vita.
The American Bar Association, the Section of Taxation, and the Law Student Division have a wealth of information about the VITA program on their respective websites. For more information, visit www.americanbar.org/aba.html, keyword “VITA.”
The author would like to give special thanks to the following individuals who provided information but were not mentioned in the body of the article: Jonathan Forman, Professor of Law, University of Oklahoma College of Law; Ljubomir Nacev, Professor of Law, Northern Kentucky School of Law; and Pat Tolan, Associate Professor of Law and Faculty VITA Coordinator, Barry University School of Law.