TAMPA – With just over a month until Tax Day, last-minute low- and moderate-income taxpayers can still take advantage of a federal program to have their taxes done for free by IRS-certified volunteers.
Among the thousands who volunteer in the national program are University of South Florida Muma College of Business accounting students who are eager to apply the lessons they’ve learned in the classroom and to contribute to the community.
The IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA), which has operated for over 50 years, offers free basic tax return preparation for those who meet income qualifications. While some business students are serving as volunteers, many USF students qualify for the free program and may take advantage of the free tax preparation.
“VITA is an amazing program,” said Edgar Vasquez, a senior at USF who is majoring in accounting. “Tax preparation can cost hundreds of dollars and getting it done for free makes a big difference to the people coming into VITA for their returns.”
Volunteers like Vasquez receive training and then begin volunteering at a location in the community. For VITA sites in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sarasota, Manatee and Desoto counties, taxpayers can find more details about VITA through the United Way Suncoast. Sites may take appointments or walk-ins.
“People get so happy when I tell them how much they’re getting back and are always so grateful,” he said. “It’s been really cool to see the impact of the program firsthand.”
In addition to tax preparation assistance, VITA sites may offer additional services, such as financial coaching, legal assistance for tax issues, and processing an individual taxpayer identification number.
While Vasquez isn’t getting paid, he sees other tangible benefits.
“I hope to get a lot of tax work experience out of the program,” he said. “Although I do not plan to pursue tax accounting in my career, I think this experience will help me in becoming a well-rounded accounting professional.”
Fellow USF student Ryan O’Sullivan has been a volunteer with VITA for the past four years. O’Sullivan earned his undergraduate degree in accounting and is now pursuing his master’s in finance at USF.
“My intention was to volunteer with VITA to get credits for a course, but it has ended up having a huge impact on my life,” he said. “It has been one of the best ways to learn about taxes and to see real-world examples. I have enjoyed getting to know people from all walks of life.”
O’Sullivan said his work with VITA has opened his eyes to what preparing everyday tax returns look like.
“After the first volunteer session, I learned how unique of an opportunity it was and how much it would truly teach me,” he said.
Students from the Muma College of Business have been volunteering in the program for at least a decade. At USF, VITA is offered as an upper-level accounting course.
Luke Richardson, an associate professor of taxation and an expert on federal income taxation, anticipates a smoother tax season for many taxpayers.
This year, Tax Day falls on April 18, because the traditional April 15 date falls on a Saturday and the next weekday, April 17, is recognized as Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C.
“Recent legislation provided funding for the IRS to hire and train thousands of added staff to help support taxpayers. This should lead to higher call answering rates and enhanced customer service,” he said.
An expert on federal income taxation, Richardson offers a word of caution—changes in tax law, such as the reduction in child tax credits and the ending of the COVID-related stimulus payments, could lead to lower refunds for some taxpayers.
Also, most transactions involving digital assets, such as cryptocurrency, will require answering ‘yes’ to the digital assets question on page 1 of Form 1040. In general, taxpayers must report all income arising from digital asset transactions, he said.