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AARP Tax Aide Service Continues, Free of Charge

A chat with Helen Lowenthal, district coordinator of AARP Tax Aide.

The AARP Tax Aide volunteering effort is in full swing. I had a chance to write about this service to Tucker residents in an . These intrepid volunteer tax preparers can be found at the Northlake Branch of the DeKalb Public Library every Monday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. until April 18th. Helen Lowenthal, Tax Aide district coordinator for DeKalb County advises people to not wait that long – March is the least busy month with the shortest wait.

Today, I have a chance to document a conversation with Lowenthal as she delves further into the process and recommends folks to take advantage of the March lull to get their finances in order. Lowenthal and other volunteers hope that revisiting this story might motivate people to STOP PROCRASTINATING and go down to the nearest, friendly Tax Aide locale before the April rush.

How did you first become involved with Tax Aide?

Prior to my retirement, I was a computer professional. When I was working, the father of a coworker of mine was involved in the project, so when I retired I pursued it. This would have been in 2005.

What is the area in which you operate?

I cover most of DeKalb County, and it’s basically DeKalb County south of I-85. I personally operate out of Bethesda Cathedral on Austin Drive.

 On average, how many people in the area partake of this service?

My group, which is most of DeKalb County, ends up helping about 2,500 people a year.

Any difference in the process or what shows up now and what did in 2005 when you first began volunteering?

What happens is that, in a bad economy, fewer people have taxable income so, if anything, some people may have dropped out – some taxpayers don’t need to get their taxes done. The income just isn't there.

Of all the sorts of folks for whom you prepare taxes, which group of people most benefits?

Pensioners – people who are collecting social security and are receiving a pension, though I do want to stress that we serve taxpayers of any age, as long as the complexity of their tax returns falls within the scope of our training.

I was under the impression that Social Security wasn’t taxed?

It depends. If you make a certain amount of money, part of your social security can be taxed.

 Any memorable story that you recall from having helped somebody?

There is, but I’m a little concerned about confidentiality, as I’m not supposed to share the story. She might read the article and recognize herself!

I can make a generalization though. Sometimes people have done their own tax returns and they bring them in for us to check. And whenever they do that we end up giving them a bigger refund or they end up owing less taxes than they would have if they’d done the return themselves. They’re always happy when they’re getting a refund.

 So happy that some might want to bring you a gift!

Actually, we’re not allowed to accept gifts. That’s a program policy – we’re not allowed to receive any kind of remuneration or gifts of any kind.

Does Tax Aide have an ongoing need for volunteers?

There’s always a need for volunteers because every year volunteers drop out. So we start recruiting in September. I generally ask volunteers if they’ve ever done their own taxes, because that’s how you learn now to do taxes, by doing your own taxes. If someone has never done their own taxes, that’s a good place to start. Also, we do the taxes on computers so some of the volunteers must have computer literacy.

 If you could describe the training process, from a personal perspective, what is it like?

The training materials come in November and then in January the new volunteers participate in a one week class. It’s all day for five days, and the returning volunteers have to participate in a three day class every year and then everyone has to pass a certification test every year. It’s the same process year after year.

 Does it get easier?

Oh yes, The first year is very challenging but after that it becomes easier.

Would you consider yourself a numbers person?

Yes, I majored in Math. In general, I would say I’m not that much of a chatty person, I’m far more analytical. Yet there are Tax Aide volunteers who might be chattier and less mathematically inclined – they would serve well as greeters.

What do you think is the importance of taxation in the economy we live in today? Do you have some thoughts you’d like to share on that?

No, I’d rather not (laughs).

Or, even the role of taxes in your life, do you, at some level, enjoy doing taxes the way others might enjoy quilting, for instance?

What I enjoy is helping other people - helping to unburden them. People feel very burdened by the need to prepare a tax return, and they don’t know how to do it and they might have to pay someone a lot of money, so we remove that burden from their shoulders.

Any final thoughts?

There’s one thing I wanted to put out there, March is the month when we’re the least busy, and we have tax sites all over the county. You can visit http://aarp.org/taxaide or call 888 687 2277.  The process takes on average about an hour. I’m not going to say the process takes only one hour out of your day because there might be a wait, though the shortest wait does occurs in March. Guaranteed.

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