Law Student Group Helps Low-Income Residents File Taxes

March 22, 2004

As April 15 looms on taxpayers' calendars, some local residents are getting help with their tax returns from U.Va. law and undergraduate students who volunteer Saturday afternoons at the Ridge St. Salvation Army-and garner each taxpayer an average $700 refund.

Third-year law student Tyler Kidd helped taxpayers at the Salvation Army last Saturday.
Third-year law student Tyler Kidd helped taxpayers at the Salvation Army last Saturday.

The Law School's Volunteer Income Tax Association (VITA) runs the annual service under the sponsorship of a nationwide Internal Revenue Service volunteer program and shares filing duties with an undergraduate accounting club at U.Va., Beta Alpha Psi. Eight VITA directors train student volunteers each year to help lower-income community members file their state and federal taxes while avoiding the fees of a private tax service. Since the Saturday sessions started on Feb. 14 this year, VITA has helped 35 people file for $30,669 in tax refunds, already surpassing last year's $30,000 refund total.

The taxpayers VITA helps often don't realize how much they could benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit, said VITA co-director Tyler Kidd. The government "has done a poor job of educating people about credits like these," Kidd said. "The problem with them is the people who get those credits don't know a lot about those credits." The EITC "is a refundable credit, which means you can get it whether or not you paid any taxes." People who don't make enough income to require filing taxes still "could get a fairly large check."

Kidd, a third-year law student who plans to work in commercial litigation after he graduates this spring, recalled being moved in his first year of law school by the reaction of one single mother who sought his help.

"Because of the EITC, she ended up getting a $1,400 return," he said. "You get to see the result immediately and see the smile on the person's face."

VITA co-director Matt Vermeeren, a third-year law student, noted that a married couple with two children, earning $30,000 a year may be eligible to receive a credit of about $900 from the EITC alone. Likewise, a single parent earning about $20,000 a year may be eligible for an EITC worth around $1,200 to $2,800, depending on the number of children they have. "For people making $30,000 a year, that's a considerable chunk of change," he said. "I've come to appreciate some of the complexities of our tax system and all the work [it] does to benefit low-income workers."

Vermeeren cautioned that if taxpayers file for the EITC when they don't qualify, they could be excluded from receiving the credit in the future. "Our being there helps them work through problems they may not be able to work through on their own," he said.

Former Ernst & Young accountant Billy Bey, who's now enrolled in the joint J.D.-M.B.A. program, helped train student volunteers; they were surprisingly quick at learning the basics, he said. "Once they get more familiar with it, a lot of law students find out they like it," he said. "It's good to erase the stigma that's associated with taxes."

This year the number of volunteers more than doubled to 80. "The problem is, we don't have enough spots for all the volunteers," Kidd said. He attributes the increase in part to a good publicity campaign, but also, "this is one of the few pro bono opportunities for students who are interested in transactional work."

Second-year law student and VITA co-director Carmen Ramirez said the program educates volunteers about practical and policy aspects of taxes. "It's both really educational for us and it fills needs in the community," she said. Ramirez noted that perhaps a third of taxpayers who come for help are University employees or retirees. Volunteers also have helped recent immigrants who are filing taxes for the first time. Even in cases where returns are too complicated for volunteers to help, VITA can point taxpayers in the right direction, she said.

Vermeeren noted that just being able to get taxpayers large refunds means a lot to volunteers. "You realize given the amount of money that they make, it will likely pay for their food for the coming year," he said. "It's nice to put money in people's pockets."

Volunteers are available at the Salvation Army on Ridge St. from 12-4 pm every Saturday from now until April 10. Taxpayers seeking service must make $35,000 or less, but those with dependents may make more and still receive help. Service is first-come, first-serve; volunteers can also electronically file tax forms upon request.

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