By SAMANTHA GRENROCK
GAINESVILLE – The University of Florida IFAS Extension has received a grant of $12,500 from the IRS to help more rural, mid- to low-income Floridians do their taxes for free through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.
This is the first year the UF/IFAS program will received IRS funding. As in previous years, Bank of America continues to support the program.
In 2017, 10 UF/IFAS Extension county offices will serve as VITA intake sites, where participants work with a certified tax preparation volunteer in person or over Skype to complete their tax returns.
Intake sites are located in the following counties: Madison, Leon, Bradford, Columbia, Gadsden, Hamilton, Okaloosa, Putnam, Union and Walton.
In 2017, 10 UF/IFAS Extension county offices will serve as VITA intake sites, where participants work with a certified tax preparation volunteer in person or over Skype to complete their tax returns. Completed returns are e-filed after the appointment, and tax refunds are deposited directly into the participant’s bank account.
“Virtual tax consultation via Skype helps VITA reach more people in rural communities who may not have a home internet connection or access to other tax preparation services,” said Taylor Spangler, UF/IFAS Florida Master Money Mentor state coordinator.
“VITA also has some advantages over paid tax preparation services or doing your return on your own,” Spangler said. “In addition to being free, the process ensures that the client’s financial information is kept confidential. And because all returns are e-filed, clients can get their tax refund more quickly than they would with paper filing.”
In 2016, the UF/IFAS VITA program helped 285 taxpayers in nine Florida counties prepare their taxes, saving each an estimated $268 per return, based on the average cost of income tax preparation help in the southeastern U.S.
This year, the IRS will hold tax refunds from those taxpayers claiming the earned income credit until Feb. 15. This means that those who file taxes before Feb. 15 will not receive a refund before that date, Spangler said. While paid tax preparation services will loan users an advance on their tax refund, these loans accrue interest, which cuts into a taxpayer’s ultimate refund, Spangler explained.
One of the challenges of filing taxes is making sure that you’re taking advantage of all available credits and deductions, Spangler said. Before each consultation, UF/IFAS Extension agents help participants go through a checklist of financial materials, such as receipts and mortgage payments, they’ll need to make the most of these opportunities.
Last year, the program helped clients find $1,200 in child care credit, $10,343 in child tax credit, $13,671 in education credit and $71,877 in earned income tax credit, Spangler said.
Each VITA session also includes at least 15 minutes of financial education, such as the importance of saving receipts, maintaining a bank account and establishing a budget.
Tax refund in hand, clients are encouraged to pledge to start a savings fund through the Florida Saves program. Florida Saves week is Feb. 27 to March 3.