Accounting instructor, volunteers reduce anxiety by providing filing assistance
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and humor columnist Dave Barry once shared the following springtime observation: “It’s income tax time again, Americans: time to gather up those receipts, get out those tax forms, sharpen up that pencil, and stab yourself in the aorta.”
For those who can relate to Barry’s pain, keep in mind that assistance is available to lessen the anxiety and discomfort that many people experience during this annual activity.
Thankfully, there are tax-filing helpers who exist to guide stressed taxpayers through the maze of complicated tax codes and navigate around the pitfalls associated with ambiguous tax-form instructions. But perhaps most impressive, they provide their services for free.
Among these high-ranking helpers at Ivy Tech Community College Northeast is accounting instructor and CPA Gail Amstutz.
“To me, accounting is like putting together a big puzzle. The field was not a natural inclination for me, but I grew to like accounting and the career opportunities it offers,” says Amstutz, whose mother was a bookkeeper and whose brother is a fellow CPA.
Amstutz is the College’s site coordinator for the IRS-sponsored Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA. Her band of IRS-certified volunteers are current or former Ivy Tech Northeast students who must, at minimum, take two prerequisite accounting classes, participate in tax law and tax software training, and pass basic IRS-certification and IRS Volunteer Standards of Conduct tests in order to aid tax clients.
From there, the volunteers follow VITA protocol to offer help to those who generally make $53,000 or less annually, people with disabilities, the elderly, and limited English-speaking taxpayers who need assistance preparing their own tax forms.
In return, the volunteers earn course credit, IRS tax-preparer certificates, and networking opportunities in the community.
“Students, both past and present, have said they like volunteering because they feel a sense of being a part of a team, and they appreciate the hands-on training,” Amstutz says. “It’s an experience they can put on their resumes.”
Amstutz’s finesse with facilitating the VITA program appears to be just as natural as her teaching influence in the classroom—a role that has been her true passion for the past 10 years, she says.
It’s also a presence valued by her students.
“She really seems to love what she does and that comes through in her teaching,” says accounting major Angela Dean, who served as a VITA program volunteer this year. “Gail also offers her students a great deal of encouragement along the way. I have no idea how many times I’ve received an email from her with positive feedback and encouraging words.”
For the third-consecutive year, Ivy Tech Northeast has served as a VITA program site between late January and mid-April, offering two related options: the MyFreeTaxes program, where tax clients prepare their own returns using tax software with support from volunteers, and the by-appointment-only Super Site program, where volunteers use TaxWise software to prepare their tax client’s returns. Both programs allow tax clients to have both their federal and state tax returns prepared, filed electronically, and printed for free.
One particularly happy tax client in February was Fort Wayne resident Tameka Brown.
“I stopped doing my own taxes because I don’t think I’ve been getting back what I qualify to receive,” Brown says. “Now that I’m self-employed as a hair stylist, I think I’m better off letting someone else help me, given the ins and outs of the filing process.”
By the April 10 close of her VITA program’s site operations, Amstutz estimates that she and her volunteers had assisted more than 80 tax clients with their 2014 tax returns.
If social commentator Barry were to ever feel inclined to expand on his original tax-themed column, he might approach it by correlating a link between the number of Amstutz’s satisfied tax clients this spring and an equal number of pencils and hearts that were spared from harm in northeast Indiana.
Gail Amstutz: Tax tips from a tax expert
- Make certain you document, document, document. Focus particularly on your business expenses, home office use, and mileage logs.
- Know that if you’re self-employed or an independent contractor, you not only need to pay federal and state withholding taxes, but also the employee and employer portion of Social Security and Medicare taxes. (You do, however, get to take a deduction for the employer portion of your self-employment taxes.)
- Take time to investigate the numerous tax credits available. You may qualify for lifetime learning credits, earned income credits, savers credits (a special tax break for low- and moderate-income taxpayers who are saving for retirement), and so forth.
- Verify your filing status. It’s not as simple to figure out anymore because relationships are more blended and diverse than the old standards of “married” or “single.” An example would be multi-generational families.