Pro bono VITA program benefits low-income taxpayers
Preparing and filing tax returns just doesn’t come easily for all people, and not everyone can afford to pay a professional to do it for them — but some USC law students are here to help.
For 22 years now, students at the USC School of Law have offered their time and expertise to help people file their state and federal income tax returns for free, a service provided through the Internal Revenue Service’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
This year around 18 law students are assisting with the preparation and filing process every Wednesday and Saturday, from Feb. 9 through the end of March, according to Pamela Robinson, the law school’s Pro Bono program director.
To be eligible to receive the free VITA service, people must make $51,000 or less per year and need assistance in preparing their own tax returns. Robinson said many of the law students’ clients have been coming to them consistently for years, and they include a number of senior citizens, students and service employees at the university.
“We really want to reach out to those people that really need the help and are not paying to have someone do their taxes when they can get it done for free. Free is always better,” Robinson said.
In the past, students have served about 200 clients per tax season, according to Robinson.
“We don’t care about the quantity of them (or) how many we do,” Robinson said. “We have a slogan: you benefit, we learn. And it is much more about the opportunity for the students to engage with clients, to learn to interview. You know, there’s nothing quite like having to explain to somebody why they have to pay because they had no taxes taken out.”
Third-year law student Daniel Craig has participated in the VITA program for three years now, and he agrees that the service is as much a helpful opportunity for the students as for the clients.
“I just enjoy helping people out. I think as a future lawyer that’s a lot of our job, to help people,” Craig said. “And I think this gives practical experience in helping folks out, learning how to interview clients and work with clients toward a common goal.”
Students earn IRS certification to provide preparation and filing services through an online training program.
Working with clients, students interview them to find out information such as their filing status, what tax documents they have and what kinds of income they receive, Craig said. The students then use a special IRS software program, similar to free personal software programs like TurboTax, Craig said, to e-file the clients’ tax returns.
Craig said one of the reasons he thinks so many people keep coming to them year after year for this service is that “it’s a confident place people can turn to.”
Robinson said the students who participate in the VITA program come from a variety of backgrounds in the law school, including business and economics, and not all of them are interested in pursuing a career in tax work.
“I don’t think in all my years I’ve had more than two or three [CPAs]. It doesn’t matter. They all seem to have an interest in helping, and they seem to work through the logistics of tax,” Robinson said.
The students’ service is available every Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon in the law school lobby. VITA is among more than 20 pro bono programs operated by the law school.