How to Get Tax Help for Seniors
Taxes are confusing for everyone. Property tax, social security, tax returns, tax credit, property tax exemption… the very thought of tax itself is taxing on the brain. But as with many of life’s little annoyances for taxpayers, minor tax confusion can become incrementally more difficult to understand and manage as we age. Age isn’t the only factor that makes tax logistics so difficult for many seniors to manage. Changing technology, complex rules, and a lack of sufficient funds to hire a professional accountant or tax preparer can make even common tax issues seem like insurmountable problems. Luckily, seniors who find themselves in this situation aren’t alone and they aren’t helpless, either. Learn more about low-cost or cost-free tax help services for seniors and how you can take steps to protect your elder loved ones from tax scams.
Federal Government Tax Counseling and Income Tax Assistance
When you have a problem, it’s often best to go to the source to seek a solution. That’s true of the IRS, which offers two great programs that seniors can use:
- Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program
- Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program
There are VITA and TCE support centers and programs located throughout the United States. By visiting the IRS website at https://www.irs.gov/ you can do a location-based search that makes it easy to find the closest VITA or TCE program near you.
Below are details about each of the programs, to help you decide which service best fits the needs of the individual in question. Setting up an appointment for tax counseling through either or both of these IRS assistance services is possible. Depending on the program and the specific rules that are in place at the time, you might not be able to actually set up the appointment for the someone else due to the confidentiality rules that govern the IRS. However, there may be some circumstances in which these rules are waived, particularly if the senior you’re helping isn’t able to properly communicate on their own.
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)
VITA volunteers are fully credentialed and IRS-certified tax professionals who give their time to help seniors, people who fall below a certain income level, disabled people and those who are not fluent in English. The IRS Volunteer Tax Assistance (VITA) program is best suited for seniors who still earn some sort of income that is subject to income tax.
VITA a great option for seniors who have limited English-language skills but still work or for those seniors who earn an income that falls at or below the line established by VITA, which changes over time. VITA may provide services for seniors who earn an income higher than this level, but these individuals may want to pay for professional services instead.
While VITA volunteers do work hard and provide high-quality services and the program offers a cost-free way for low-income seniors and others to have their income tax returns prepared and e-filed by a professional. VITA volunteers can also provide counsel on applicable tax credits to reduce the overall income tax burden.
However, there are limits on what VITA volunteers can and cannot prepare. Tax forms such as a Schedule C showing losses, for example, will need to be prepared by a paid professional. The IRS recommends that individuals with complex tax situations consult a paid professional rather than working with VITA volunteers.
Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE)
Seniors who aren’t sure which service to use can try the TCE first since this service is specifically intended for use by senior citizens. As of 2017, seniors need to be 60 years old to qualify for TCE assistance.
Fixed-income living is the reality for many seniors and these people should consult the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) rather than VITA, which deals specifically with income tax.
TCE is also a free service operated by volunteer IRS-certified tax professionals, but the issues it handles is more relevant for seniors who no longer work, such as pensions and retirement income.
TCE volunteers often travel to meet seniors in locations that are convenient for the senior (such as local malls, community centers, and public libraries). Nonprofit organizations administer and oversee the TCE program, which works on grants given by the IRS. If you’re already working with a nonprofit organization or a healthcare organization focused on serving seniors, ask about Tax Counseling for the Elderly. You may get a referral to a program within an organization you already know and trust.
AARP Foundation Tax-Aide
If an IRS program isn’t available in your area or you’d simply prefer to work with a different organization, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) Foundation Tax-Aide program is a great option. Below is a list of services that the AARP Foundation offers to seniors:
- AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteers are IRS certified professional tax professionals
- Free to anyone age 50 and up who needs tax prep services.
- You don’t need to be an AARP member to qualify.
- AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteers are accessible both in person and online.
- In-person visits are available during tax season, (starts in January or February and extends through the April 15th deadline)
- In-person visits often available in convenient locations such as public libraries, community centers, and even shopping malls or banks.
- To find volunteers in your community, visit the AARP website early in tax season, call the AARP or contact your local AARP
- The online AARP Foundation Tax-Aide assistance program operates year-round, allowing seniors to address tax issues whenever they arise and have questions answered well before the annual April Tax Day rolls around.
Since its inception in 1968, the Tax-Aide program has provided cost-free assistance to more than 50 million Americans, proving it to be a highly effective option for those who need their tax questions answered and forms prepared.
State Government Tax Assistance
VITA and TCE both cover state income tax and other basic state tax issues, so seeking out state-level tax help may not be necessary. However, individual US state tax bureaus or treasury departments may have their own tax assistance programs for seniors.
If federal tax volunteers don’t handle the specific state issues your senior is dealing with your state’s bar association may provide pro-bono (free) legal counsel for those who need legal assistance for their tax problems.
Local CPA or tax preparer associations may also provide volunteer tax counseling help for seniors. Given how widespread senior citizen tax issues are in the United States, there’s no shortage of assistance out there for those who need it, including on the state level. Seniors are often unaware of this fact and need some help learning about and obtaining that assistance where it’s available. Even those who are aware of federal assistance programs may not know they can get state tax help as well.
Helping Seniors Understand Scams
Tax prep isn’t the only tax-related issue with which seniors may need extra assistance. Unfortunately, a lot of telephone, postal mail, and email scams target seniors specifically. The reasons why are as numerous as they are morally disgusting. Often, scammers target seniors under the assumption that their lack of tech savvy makes them more likely to follow instructions without question and, sadly, this is a strategy that tends to work. This means that anyone who cares for a senior citizen needs to provide direct, continuous assistance in order to ensure the seniors in their lives don’t fall victim to one of these schemes.
One common scam tactic sees criminals contacting seniors during tax season and aggressively demanding payment of supposed outstanding tax debts. Other scams focus on taxes related to loan debts and the scammers may actually do a surprising amount of research on each senior they target. When seniors get the call, the scammer uses researched personal information to trick seniors into thinking the call is legitimate. Though they may seem legitimate, these calls are scams. Tax debt claims detailed in these calls are bogus and seniors who fall victim to these claims suffer great financial harm. Every year seems to bring a new set of tax-related scams targeting seniors. Details may change, but if you and the seniors in your life understand the basics of how to identify and deal with a scam, you’ll stay safe in the long term.
How Scammers Work
It’s important to note that while many phone scams use robotic or human voice recordings, tax scams typically use live human operators.
These scammers impersonate IRS agents over the phone and use intimidation tactics, preying on fear to get financial information they then use to steal from their victims. The IRS itself is aware of this scam and warns seniors to ignore these calls. It’s important to note that the IRS does not call people to demand payment of back taxes; these notices are almost always given via letters posted through the US mail. Even if the IRS did call citizens to demand back tax payment, seniors would be within their rights to take down the name, badge number, and phone number of the supposed IRS agent and to call back later to verify details, including contacting the IRS through its main customer service helpline numbers.
The IRS does not call people to demand payment of back taxes; these notices are almost always given via letters posted through the US mail.
Email scams can also be an issue, with spammers creating fake IRS email accounts and using logos and other identifying imagery that makes emails look official. However, these emails are easy to spot because they don’t have a gov email address and because the IRS NEVER sends bills via email. An email from an address such as firstname.lastname@example.org is fake and should be deleted without opening.
Tax-focused scams all tend to take on the same general characteristics. Intimidation, fear, and even sophisticated mimicking of IRS credentials are all part of the scammer playbook, particularly when it comes to phone calls. Some scamming operations can even make caller ID displays seems like the number is coming from the IRS, even when the IRS isn’t actually calling. The IRS reports that scammers are even making up fake employee names and badge numbers to make their scam more convincing. Operations that target seniors are often highly sophisticated and give every appearance of being authentic.
Empowering Seniors Against Victimhood
However convincing these scammers may be, there are some basic things for seniors to look out for. A real IRS agent will not demand immediate payment over the phone. In spite of its reputation, the IRS is a generally sympathetic organization that simply wants to collect payment, and the people who work for this public office are not incentivized to harass people the way some private-sector collections agency employees are.
IRS employees typically want to protect their fellow citizens from scams, so they should not take issue with the idea of having their credentials verified or allowing the person they’re dealing with to confirm specifics of an account. You can even ask for your IRS communications to be sent to you in writing. A scammer might not be so patient and, most importantly, their claims will not be verified when you contact the IRS through their official IRS customer service numbers.
Seniors need to be made aware of the prevalence of tax scams and how they operate. Advise the seniors in your life not only of the danger these scams present but also of the steps they should take when they’re contacted by someone who claims to be an IRS agent and demands payment for a delinquent tax account.
Let them know not to panic. Following these important steps will help protect them from tax scams:
1. NEVER GIVE OUT FINANCIAL INFORMATION such as bank names, credit card numbers, or checking account numbers over the phone. (This is true in all circumstances in which seniors receive an incoming call regarding a tax account, even if the person the senior is talking to seems like a genuine IRS agent.)
2. IGNORE AND DELETE ANY EMAILS CLAIMING TO BE FROM THE IRS. The IRS does not use email to communicate information about debts or account issues.
3. NEVER GIVE OUT PERSONAL CONTACT INFORMATION, including names and addresses unless the senior has made a direct call to an IRS contact line.
4. REQUEST THE NAME, BADGE ID NUMBER, AND CONTACT PHONE NUMBER OF THE SUPPOSED IRS EMPLOYEE, and terminate the call immediately thereafter. There is no need to use proper telephone manners during these calls. Encourage the senior to hang up after obtaining information about the caller. If the caller will not provide this information, seniors should hang up immediately. IRS agents are required to identify themselves.
5. AVOID CONVERSATIONS WITH AND REFUSE TO ANSWER QUESTIONS POSED BY CALLERS CLAIMING TO BE IRS AGENTS. Some scammers use extended conversation as a tactic to confuse seniors and prey on their increased vulnerability during a stressful phone call.
6. ONLY USE CONTACT NUMBERS LISTED ON THE IRS WEBSITE, IRS.GOV.
7. NEVER CALL NUMBERS PROVIDED BY A SUPPOSED AGENT WHO CALLS THE SENIOR DIRECTLY. Any and all tax-related business can be handled through the IRS customer service line. Seniors should not believe any information to the contrary.
8. CALLING THE IRS DIRECTLY THROUGH THE APPROVED CONTACT NUMBERS DETAILED ABOVE TO CONFIRM DETAILS OF THE SITUATION and to request a written account statement to be mailed to the physical address listed on the tax account in question.
9. GETTING IN TOUCH WITH ONE OF THE ORGANIZATIONS discussed in this article before taking any action at all regarding a supposedly delinquent account. (IRS Volunteer Tax Assistance (VITA) program, Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE), or AARP Foundation).
Additionally, you should inform the seniors in your life that the IRS doesn’t tend to impose immediate penalties for nonpayment. This is an important detail. Scammers rely on their ability to overwhelm and frighten seniors into thinking that they’ll suffer great consequences if they don’t give payment information on the phone right away. IRS rules and regulations do not allow for this kind of demand to be made in such a direct manner. There is no harm in waiting until the proper steps are taken to verify that the account is indeed delinquent.
Empowering seniors requires the proper communication of accurate information. If you don’t feel equal to the task of providing detailed counsel on these issues with the seniors in your life, put these individuals in touch with one of the tax counseling services listed above (the IRS Volunteer Tax Assistance (VITA) program, Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE), or AARP Foundation). As mentioned before, these services specialize in assisting seniors with tax-related issues and are experts in explaining and communicating tax laws and processes in a way that is easy to understand.
For seniors on fixed incomes, financial health can be the key to physical and emotional health as well. Help out where you can to keep your friends and family members safe and happy.
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