Tax time is stressful for many Americans, but this year, Georgians in more than a dozen counties can visit their University of Georgia Cooperative Extension county offices for help filing their income taxes through UGA Extension’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
During the 2017 tax season, the virtual VITA program helped more than 40 tax filers in Colquitt, Dougherty, Early, Lanier, Sumter and Tift counties prepare their taxes with help from their county Extension Family and Consumer Sciences agent and volunteer tax preparers in Athens, Georgia. The volunteers were students in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences financial planning program and the UGA Terry College of Business’s accounting department.
Because of the program's success in 2017, Joan Koonce, an Extension Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS) specialist in financial planning, worked with Andrea Scarrow, Southwest District Extension FACS program development coordinator, and Lance Palmer, teaching and research faculty member in the financial planning program, to expand the VITA program. It now serves Georgians in Crisp, Clarke, Elbert, Forsyth, Lincoln, Monroe, Morgan, Oconee, Tattnall, Washington and Wilkes counties in addition to the six original counties.
“The demand was so great that we wanted to expand this year to accommodate more taxpayers,” she said.
The initial program lasted for a few weeks, but this year, the team will offer filing services from Feb. 1 to April 10.
With this longer window, Koonce believes that they can use secure telemeeting technology and UGA Extension’s infrastructure of local offices to serve as many as 200 tax filers this year.
With the help of an information technology expert at UGA, Koonce’s team has created a secure link with the county offices and the IRS to safely keep and transmit tax documents.
The service is essential for many Georgians who are new to filing their taxes, don’t have access to internet tax-filing services or can’t afford an in-person tax preparation service, Koonce said.
“Colquitt County is 8.1 percent above the Georgia poverty level — 26.5 percent versus 18.4 percent — so this program meets one of the core needs in this community — tax preparation assistance and financial literacy,” said Kathryn Holland, a UGA Extension public service assistant who helps coordinate the VITA program in Colquitt County.
The student preparers received training from the IRS and can prepare tax returns as well as provide advice for building household savings and for lowering future tax bills.
The majority of last year’s clients were senior citizens, but there were also many parents of small children and others who were looking for help to maximize their refunds, Koonce said.
The student preparers can handle most individual and small business returns, but there are some returns that are too complex. That’s why it’s important for filers to contact the VITA program early, in case they need to find another preparer or locate additional documentation, Koonce said.
VITA services will be provided by appointment. Those in Colquitt, Clarke, Crisp, Dougherty, Elbert, Early, Forsyth, Lanier, Lincoln, Monroe, Morgan, Oconee, Sumter, Tattnall, Tift, Washington and Wilkes counties interested in the service should contact their county Extension offices. Contact information can be found at extension.uga.edu or by calling 1-800-Ask–UGA1.