In her work at the Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic, Tameka Lester, associate director and clinical assistant professor, assists low-income taxpayers who have controversies with the IRS, often because forms are filled out incorrectly or claims that aren’t valid. Though her daily job is a form of giving back, Lester wanted to do even more.
“I wanted to get involved in a community-based organization, something where I could use my knowledge and skills in tax law to continue to help others,” she said.
That desire led her to the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA), which provides assistance to low- and moderate-income individuals, people with disabilities and limited English speakers who need help preparing their taxes.
“Good tax preparation is the key to avoiding controversies,” Lester said. “Through volunteering at VITA, I could assist an organization that feeds into the work we do in the clinic.”
On Lester’s first day volunteering, Olivia Alston, who runs the VITA program in Atlanta, expressed a need for someone to help train other volunteers. Lester worked with Alston to develop a program to assist volunteers in learning the tax knowledge needed to pass a required certification exam. Previously, volunteers had to educate themselves on tax law using materials provided by VITA.
To ensure the appropriate materials were being covered, Alston formed a VITA Advisory Board, naming Lester one of its members and the organizer and facilitator of the tax law training program.
In fall 2016, Lester facilitated three two-day workshops to prepare volunteers for the upcoming tax season, educating them about filing statuses, dependency, credits, the Affordable Care Act and more. The volunteers have varied backgrounds and range from college students to retirees, Lester said.
“Prior to Professor Lester’s involvement we taught more navigation of the software application. For inexperienced volunteers this was not the most effective approach,” Alston said. “Thanks to Professor Lester, we have a class dedicated to tax law and a separate class focused on navigation of the software. Students who have taken Professor Lester’s course rave about her effective and engaging teaching style. They also report feeling confident and well prepared to volunteer at a VITA site.
“Professor Lester has been a significant asset to our VITA initiative over the past two years.”
VITA helps to ensure families receive all the credits they are eligible for with a particular focus on the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, which many families fail to claim, Alston said.
“The yearly filing of a tax return can be a costly endeavor for low-income people, and furthermore, many tax return preparers are seeking to maximize refunds to repeat business, often sacrificing accuracy to do so,” Lester said. “VITA addresses both of these issues—it is free and taxpayers can feel confident the return is prepared correctly because each of the volunteers must pass a certification exam.”
The United Way of Greater Atlanta receives a grant from the IRS to operate the program, and has 40 sites in the Atlanta metro area. The 2016 tax season concluded with 546 volunteers preparing 14,579 returns, which represents more than $14 million in refunds returned to hard working families, Alston said.
The Atlanta VITA coalition saved taxpayers $6.2 million in tax preparation fees last year; and VITA taxpayers served through the coalition received $5.6 million in Earned Income Tax Credits, Alston added.