Volunteers ready to help seniors
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009
By Deirdre Parker Smith
As they have done for many years, volunteers at Rufty-Holmes Senior Center are gearing up for the tax season.
For the 17th or 18th year, men and women have taken training provided by the AARP to help senior citizens and lower-income people prepare their tax returns.
Bill Behrendt, who has handled the training for the past several years, sounds like everyone is ready.
These days, volunteers are trained on tax law and computer software used to complete income tax returns. AARP and Rufty-Homes have been using computers to do the returns for about eight years, Behrendt says.
“We can file electronically or people who want to mail it in can do that, too. We encourage people to do it electronically.” He says it’s faster, refunds come more quickly and preparers and clients get verification that the return has been received.
“We handle more of the simpler returns,” Behrendt says, and their mission is to serve elderly and low-income people. “The training is mainly for things done by seniors ó stock sales, mutual fund sales, all brokerage statements, Social Security.
“Whatever a senior would be involved with.”
Behrendt is a retired electrical engineer from New Jersey. He heard about the senior center’s tax program and had done his taxes with the Turbotax software.
“My training was attending classes in prior years. We have class we have to go to in December.”
The AARP Foundation functions in conjunction with the IRS, he says, and the training is IRS approved.
In the years he and other volunteers have been doing taxes, one of more common problems he has seen involves people selling stock. “They come in with the sales document, but they don’t have the cost of the stock when they first bought it or the dividends.
“We’re trying to get them to understand they have to have everything with them.
He describes the average client at Rufty-Holmes as widows or couples who would otherwise have to pay a tax preparer.
“Last year we did a little over 450 returns. This year, we have more counselors, and we hope to get more computers, up to 10,” Behrendt says. They work each Tuesday with a pool of 20 to 22 volunteers.
He says fewer people helped last year, and appointment times filled up near the end of March and beginning of April, forcing them to turn people away.
Rufty-Holmes Senior Center will start doing taxes in the first week in February. Starting Jan. 28, the center will take appointments 704-216-7714.
Appointments start at 9 a.m. and continue every hour, with 4 p.m. the final appointment of the day.
If Behrendt has enough computers, volunteers could do as many as 12 returns per hour, since most are simple.
Behrendt said the center prefers to give priority to persons 60 and older and low-income people. There’s no limit on what is low income. “We discourage people with large incomes and complicated tax returns to use us. … We do a number of college students, but the VITA volunteer tax program run by the IRS is for young people.”
Behrendt says some people taking the classes are former tax people and accountants who do it as a service to the community. Some have done taxes themselves before. He says they look for people who are familiar with the process.
The free service does not come with a guarantee, like paid services. “We don’t sign them. We’re not liable for returns,” Behrendt says. “We provide a preparation service.”
Most of the volunteers are retired or in their 50s and 60s and still working.
Behrendt says H&R Block lets a couple who works for them work at Rufty-Holmes on Tuesdays. “We’re not allowed to do this at home,” Behrendt says. There’s no freelancing. Only one computer at the center submits returns, and Behrendt is in charge of that.
“I hear lots of people saying they saved money,” he says.
Behrendt isn’t just the tax man at Rufty-Holmes. He says it’s a great place to meet people and talk and get involved in all kinds of activities.