Published on 03/08/22

5 reasons to file: Free tax assistance from UGA VITA program

By Cal Powell
Oconee County resident Hallie Adams (left) works with UGA Cooperative Extension agent Leigh Anne Aaron during a VITA session in March 2021.
Oconee County resident Hallie Adams (left) works with UGA Cooperative Extension agent Leigh Anne Aaron during a VITA session in March 2021.

Filing taxes can be intimidating, but the University of Georgia can help.

The UGA Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program has provided free tax preparation services to Athens and surrounding areas for over 15 years and recently added a virtual component that allows for statewide access for online tax filing.

Last year, with the help of UGA Cooperative Extension and Georgia United Credit Union, UGA VITA reached residents in 70 Georgia counties and contributed an estimated $4 million economic impact based on tax preparation fees and federal refunds.

With tax season upon us, College of Family and Consumer Sciences faculty members Lance Palmer and Joan Koonce, who oversee the UGA VITA program, provide some facts and incentives for filing a tax return.

Most earners have to file a tax return.

Does everyone have to file a tax return? For starters, most are legally required to do so.

“Some people who wouldn’t file a tax return are those who have 100% of their income coming from Social Security benefits,” Palmer said.

The benefits to filing a tax return are to claim withheld taxes, claim credits you may be eligible for and even to protect against identity theft.

“The Internal Revenue Service is cracking down on ID theft, but there’s still a lot of theft,” Palmer said. “One of the easiest ways to make sure somebody is not filing a false return using your Social Security number is to file a tax return each year.”

Don’t miss out on a larger refund.

Unless you file a tax return, you won’t benefit from tax credits you may be eligible for such as the Earned Income Tax credit, which helps low- to moderate-income workers and families get a tax break and potentially increase their refund.

It’s estimated that between $5 million and $15 million in Earned Income Tax Credit goes unclaimed in Athens-Clarke County alone due to taxes not being filed.

“College students, low-income workers, parents … all of these people are eligible for tax credits, and they may not know it unless they file a tax return,” Palmer said. “People often overestimate what they save by not filing a tax return and underestimate what they lose.”

Bring federal dollars to your community.

Filing a tax return and claiming a federal refund brings dollars from outside the community into the community, Palmer said.

“It has a tremendous economic impact,” he said. “People are bringing (in) outside dollars and saving it or spending it at local businesses.”

Start your savings.

A tax refund can help shore up a savings account, with some households getting back 10% or more of their annual income through a refund.

“Tax season is a perfect opportunity for people to begin or increase savings for a rainy day,” Koonce said.

Save money and help a UGA student.

UGA VITA tax preparers are students in FACS, the Terry College of Business and School of Social Work who gain valuable experience interacting with real clients and preparing taxes under the supervision of trained faculty members.

The program provides free tax preparation assistance to individuals and families with low to moderate income, those with disabilities and the elderly and offers both in-person and virtual sessions.

Visit the FACS website or call 706-592-8942 to find a VITA site near you or to make an appointment.

In the Athens area, sessions are held at Georgia United Credit Union on Gaines School Road by appointment only. An upcoming pop-up clinic will be held on March 17 at Pinewood Apartments.

Virtual VITA appointments are coordinated in conjunction with UGA Extension office locations throughout the state.

Cal Powell is the director of communications for the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.