With less than a month to file income taxes before the April 15th deadline, stress from procrastination is growing, along with lists of reasons for not sitting down to crunch the numbers. For many, the cost of tax preparation is a big reason for delaying, or not filing at all. But for households with a total annual income up to $54,000, a program from United Way of Southwestern PA may be the answer.
The Free Tax Prep Campaign, from the United Way, in conjunction with the Money in Your Pocket Coalition (MIYPC), provides free tax preparation services at 25 IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites—17 in Allegheny County, and the rest in Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties.
According to Kiandra Foster, manager of the United Way’s “Helping Families Thrive” program, free preparation is only part of the reason to take advantage of the service. Getting every possible tax credit, and the maximum refund, are just as important. “Last year in Allegheny County, 50 percent of taxpayers we served said they received a tax credit they didn’t even know existed,” Foster says. “If we’re able to make people aware of those credits, to make sure they get that money back, those families can get on track towards financial stability in the longer term.”
In addition to providing tax preparation free of charge, and maximizing tax credits and refunds, there is a third objective to the program. “The United Way recognizes that these same families may have needs other than free tax preparation,” Foster says. “So each of the sites hosting tax services can get them connected to assistance with child care, transportation or utilities; emergency food or shelter; and financial counseling. It’s a comprehensive approach.”
This year, Allegheny County is making a special effort to help immigrants and refugees, as well as restaurant and lodging employees, Foster says, which the County’s Dept. of Human Services identified as needing particular assistance.
Appointments are required, but scheduling an appointment is simple, Foster says. “When people call 211, we have trained resource navigators who are able to identify their tax needs, determine their eligibility, and connect them to a local site where there’s an IRS-certified preparer,” she says. “That resource navigator is also trained to connect them to the other resources they’re eligible for.” As an alternative to calling 211, people can text their zip code to 898-211. For individuals and families living in households earning more than $54,000, but up to $62,000, free online tax assistance is available at myfreetaxes.com, which is a United Way program in partnership with H&R Block.
Foster urges taxpayers to contact the program as soon as possible to schedule an appointment. “We know working parents are very busy, but the 25 sites operate on a variety of schedules,” Foster says. “Weekdays, weekends, evenings, we’ve got it covered, so I would just encourage people to call so we can do our best to get them in at a VITA site that’s near them.”
Last year the United Way’s Free Tax Prep Campaign completed over 10,000 returns. So far this year, they’ve already completed over 5,000. Foster says, “This year we want to do more, to help as many hard-working individuals as possible, to make sure they get every penny back they’re entitled to.”