VITA program helps thousands annually file taxes

By Hannah Depin

Collegian File Photo
(Collegian File Photo)

Student volunteers from the University of Massachusetts Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program will help nearly 1,700 people file their taxes this year, free of charge.

The VITA program, which operates under the United States Internal Revenue Service, helps people with low incomes, disabilities and limited English proficiency file their taxes.

The VITA program at UMass employs a team of 80 IRS-certified volunteers who are available from 4 to 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays through April 13. These volunteers help eligible clients file taxes on a first-come, first-serve basis in Isenberg School of Management Room 35.

The late Nelson E. Pion, former professor emeritus in accounting in the Isenberg School of Management, brought the program to UMass in the mid-1980s. Once a week, his student volunteers set up a walk-in VITA site in the community room at the Hampshire Mall in Hadley.

In the late 1990s, the program moved to its current home on the UMass campus and began offering tax assistance three times per week every February through April.

The program is divided into two divisions. A team of foreign filers – overseen by veteran volunteer Ted Los and Accounting Professor Sean Wandrei – help file taxes for foreign students, who often have trouble navigating the process.

Filing taxes as a foreign student is made complicated by visas and U.S. tax treaties, according to accounting Professor Catherine Lowry. The VITA program at UMass is one of few sites in the U.S. that provides volunteer tax assistance to foreign students, she added.

Domestic filers, supervised by Lowry, help file taxes for people with low incomes and disabilities. Domestic division volunteers help with basic return files only, meaning that they do not help file sole proprietorships, or rental and farm income. Most of the domestic clients who come to UMass look for assistance earning tax credits for education, children and earned income, according to Lowry.

“Without VITA, many people would not file and would lose refundable credits they need to live on, like additional tax credit, earned income credit and the refundable American opportunity credit,” Lowry said. “We bring peace of mind to so many tax payers and that is a great feeling.”

Lowry and other program directors look for student volunteer applicants who are motivated and reliable, and who have taken Accounting 371: Individual Taxation. Volunteers are trained in advance of VITA’s mid-February start, and all volunteers must pass the IRS’s Link and Learn test online.

“As a volunteer, the student is taking classroom knowledge and putting it to use in the real world, and learning a professional skill,” Lowry said.  “At the same time, our students are humbled by the clients they serve.”

Volunteer Sarah McGovern, a sophomore accounting major, helps file foreign tax returns on Tuesday evenings.  McGovern says she applied to the VITA program because she was looking for a way to give back to the community and employ the skills she has learned in her accounting classes.

“It’s a way to practice skills without being in a high-pressure situation,” she said. “You try to get through as many clients as you can, but still try to get to know them and help them as much as you can, too.”

Volunteers suggest clients arrive early and be prepared to wait before receiving help from a volunteer, because spots fill up quickly. For more information about how to file taxes with VITA’s assistance, contact [email protected]

Hannah Depin can be reached at [email protected]