Free tax help offered for lower income residents and seniors

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Think a 1040 form refers to the number of challenges you'll face to complete it? Meet Sue Sherlock, one of a smaller yet supportive group of Vermonters helping tame the often intimidating paperwork and computer programs that spring up during income tax season.

"There are so many people who are nervous about doing even the simplest of returns," she says.

That's why Sherlock, a Brattleboro accountant, devotes a day a week to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program — just one of several free in-person and online services available for low-to-middle-income and senior Vermonters.

The VITA program, sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service and United Ways of Vermont, helps people with a 2015 household income of up to $54,000, as well as those who are older, disabled or speak limited English.

"It's a very much needed service," Sherlock says, "especially because taxes can be complicated, and it can be costly to have them done."

Take the case of an unnamed reporter seeking to both calculate his federal and state taxes and chronicle the free assistance options for fellow math-phobes.

Calling Vermont 2-1-1 to schedule an appointment, he was asked to bring his Social Security card, W-2s and other revenue and expense statements.

Dabble in freelance writing? Don't expect an easy time reporting it.

"There are so many codes for obscure businesses," Sherlock says. "Tile and terrazzo contractor, coal miner — I don't know how many self-employed coal miners there are — but you can't find one that says writer." (The answer: Try "other.")

The nation's new Affordable Care Act and its 1095 health insurance statements are proving equally problematic.

"The whole thing has caused confusion," says Sherlock, who has seen mistakes on many state forms.

But soon the accountant, working on a laptop, presses a few buttons to electronically file a federal and state return and print copies for safekeeping.

The IRS and the Vermont Department of Taxes trains and tests volunteers for both the VITA and AARP Foundation Tax-Aide programs, which focuses on people age 60 and older.

Preparers can file federal and state income tax returns, household income schedules and homestead declaration, property tax adjustment and renter rebate claims, and take advantage of tax credits.

For Vermonters who prefer to file themselves, those with a 2015 household income of up to $62,000 can complete their federal and state taxes online without charge at the MyFreeTaxes website (www.myfreetaxes.com/vermont) with phone assistance at 1-855-My-Tx-Help (1-855-698-9435).

The state also is promoting a Vermont Free File partnership between the IRS and several tax preparation software companies, with information available on the websites www.irs.gov/freefile and tax.vermont.gov/individuals/free-file.

"We want more Vermonters to take advantage of Free File," state Tax Commissioner Mary Peterson says in a statement, "because it not only saves taxpayers time and money, it also provides valued savings to Vermont's government, with fewer processing costs and errors than paper returns."

More information about all free options is available at tax.vermont.gov/individuals/free-tax-preparation-assistance.

The VITA program, for its part, is always seeking volunteers to assist others.

"We have a lot of people who don't have the confidence to do it themselves or don't have access to a computer or the means to pay a professional," Sherlock says. "It's nice to help."


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