According to its website, “AARP Foundation Tax-Aide… helps low- to moderate-income taxpayers have more discretionary income for everyday essentials, such as food and housing, by assisting with tax services and ensuring they receive applicable tax credits and deductions.” This free tax preparation service is available to taxpayers with low and middle incomes with special attention to those over 60 years of age. The program has been available in Whatcom County for over 20 years and I have been involved for 10 of those years. I wasn’t an accountant but I had always done my own taxes and worked in finance and when I retired and moved to Bellingham I wanted to keep my mind sharp and do something meaningful and productive.

The first question we hear from clients and potential volunteers is “are you all accountants?” The answer is that we are made up of accountants, engineers, insurance analysts, payroll specialists and business executives, many of whom had no formal accounting training. In order to qualify as a volunteer one must complete a self-study training course and an IRS certification test. Volunteers who are willing to dedicate the 20 to 40 hours to the training find a level of fulfillment that cannot be matched.

In 2014 we completed over 2,200 tax returns at six sites in Whatcom County. We see a wide range of clients from all walks of life and the one thing that all of these people: young, old, married, single, homeowner or homeless have in common is the appreciation they express for our help. It doesn’t matter if they have to wait to be served or if their refund is only $50, they all love the service we offer.

This year we amended a return for a man who had paid a national service to do his initial return. He came to us when he received a late W-2 and was told by a friend that our service was free. We completed his amendment, told him that unfortunately he would have to pay back some of the original refund he was due to get and sent him on his way. Two months later he returned asking why he hadn’t gotten his refund. We checked the IRS website to find that they had deposited his refund into “his bank account” two months earlier. Although this gentleman spoke very limited English we were able to confirm with him that he in fact did not have a bank account and his original tax return said he was due $983. In further questioning we found that he had received $676 from the company that did his first return. He, however, not understanding the process and kept looking at the $983 refund shown on his original return and wanted to know where that was. As we put our heads together we were able to piece together the series of events. He was in fact due a refund of $983 and if he had come to us first he would have gotten a check for that amount in about three weeks. However, the national company that prepared his return convinced him that he should not wait for the IRS to send him the money, but should rather have the money deposited to their bank account so that they could give him an immediate check. So, he accepted a check for $676, which meant that he had just paid $307 for the privilege of having his simple tax return prepared and get an immediate payment. The fact that he came to us asking what happened to the original $983 told us that he clearly did not understand what he had agreed to. Unfortunately we had to refer him back to the national company who did his original return so they could explain to him what happened to his $307.

After he left one of our volunteers who helped sort out the confusion summed up the discussion by saying “This is why I do this.” We can’t fix the past but when this gentleman comes to us first next year we will be able to make sure he is one of the many clients who so appreciate our services. This is why we do what we do.

We are always looking for new people to prepare taxes and we also have positions as greeters at each of our sites. To learn more about our program please log on to aarp.org or email us at taxaidebellingham@gmail.com.
Read more here: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2014/09/03/3826977_aarp-whatcom-volunteers-help-others.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy