CSUDH’s free tax preparation service can help those filing taxes save money as well as burnish the resumes of student volunteers. Photo courtesy of VITA.
By Iracema Navarro, Senior Editor
For the past year, we’ve all been dealing with the uncertainty of the coronavirus; but now it’s time to deal with one of life’s two certainties: taxes.
The deadline to file a federal 2020 tax return was extended to May 17. But regardless of the date, during the summer, the CSUDH community has an ally when it comes to the tax fight: the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which has offered free income tax preparation help for more than 40 years.
The VITA program offers eligible CSUDH students, their families, and faculty free tax preparation and free e-filing of their federal and state income taxes. The maximum income to qualify for VITA is $57,000.
VITA is led by faculty adviser and accounting lecturer Arek Arakelian, also joined by IRS-certified student volunteers. Arakelian is in his fourth year as adviser, but VITA has been around for far longer. How long, no one’s quite sure, but “at least since 1980,” Arakelian said.
Arakelian averages about 150 hours per tax season committing to the program, its volunteers, and helping the community. In his first two years, Arakelian said the number of people serviced by VITA doubled from 150 to 300. Last year due to the pandemic arriving in March, the numbers dipped back down to 150.
VITA lead coordinator and CSUDH accounting major Jasmin Martinez has volunteered with the program for four years. Martinez said she values the hands-on experience and the different scenarios of families she has met. But what she enjoys most is seeing the impact VITA has on low-income families.
“CPA [certified public accountant] firms and companies charge about $500 or $600 to file,” Martinez said. “Low-income communities can definitely benefit when they use VITA as a resource.”
Depending on how complicated and how many forms are needed to file the federal and state taxes, the fees can increase.
According to the National Society of Accountants, the national average fee for tax preparation is $457 for an itemized 1040 form with a Schedule C business income and state return. Tax preparation for simple federal and state tax returns is an average fee of $176.
All VITA appointments this tax season will be via Zoom and even though that video conferencing program is something most of us have dealt with far more than we could have ever expected, there are some difficulties in managing it, Arakelian said.
“Now everybody is working virtually, it’s 100% virtual and that’s what made it difficult,” he said. “In the old days, we used to be in a large computer lab and it was very easy for any volunteer to pop up and ask a question to their colleagues and get the answer. People learn from each other so that element of group work doesn’t exist anymore. It’s going to be difficult this year, but we’re going to do our best.”
Clients will now have to utilize their own computer skills and equipment to scan, download, upload, sign, and re-upload documents.
The documents needed to file federal and state income taxes are proof of identification, income forms, and tax credit documents. A new tax credit will be eligible for those who did not receive their second economic impact payment.
The VITA program volunteers are mostly accounting majors who have taken 40 to 60 hours of training to learn the tax rules.
Ricardo Ulivi, a retired CSUDH professor with more than 40 years of finance says that like it or not, you better get used to doing your taxes.
“Just always think taxes, taxes, taxes because it’s something that even after you’re dead, you’re going to have to pay taxes,” Ulivi said. “Because after you die, somebody is going to have to file your last income tax and somebody has to file your state tax.”