Tax time not so taxing for seniors

Filling out yearly income tax forms can create confusion, fear and worry for people of all ages, and especially for senior citizens.

But there is help, and for many it is free at the Bayview and Oak Harbor Senior Centers and the Freeland and Coupeville libraries.

Every Friday at the Bayview center, volunteer tax assistants trained through the American Association of Retired Persons and the Internal Revenue Service are helping South Whidbey seniors and other people bewildered by 1040s and W-2s fill out their tax forms. These volunteers know how people feel about tax time -- crunched.

"We're here to help everyone, all ages, with middle to moderate income, to file their returns," said Ed Van Patten, one of the volunteers who has been assisting with income tax returns at the Bayview Senior Center since February. He said his job is to be accurate, because even though he is not paid, everyone he helps has money on the line.

"We also check over returns already filled out to be sure everything is correct," he said. "We know how a figure on the wrong line can have a disastrous result."

As the April 15 tax deadline fast approaches, making use of the free AARP tax assistance at the senior center makes a lot of sense for many people. Barbara Reed is one of them. Waiting her turn at the Bayview Senior Center on last Friday morning, she said she needs the help to keep current on tax law.

"I've been coming here for years to have my tax report checked," Reed said. "You think you have it down and then the tax laws change or you're looking at some very confusing capital losses or you think you may need another schedule."

"I wouldn't think of filing without having one of these people check me out."

While Reed's confidence in the service comes with years of experience, Van Patten is quick to reassure anyone interested in the volunteer tax help of the competence of the tax advice he and other volunteers give.

"Each year, we receive 40 hours of expert training and must pass a stiff exam," he said. "Our aim is to see that the taxpayer pays as little as required. Believe me, we're looking out for the taxpayer."

Nine volunteer tax assistants are in the island program, operating at four sites on the island. Doing the tax sessions at both libraries and senior centers attracts a wider range of taxpayers.

"It's our hope that all ages will make use of this program," Van Patten said.

No appointments are necessary. Anyone looking tax help needs only to bring last year's tax return, this year's 1040 form, and all tax records relevant to the current tax year. Any additional forms required are available at the site.

Though the volunteers are retired from the financial and tax industries, they have had a lifetime of experience. Van Patten has a background in banking and finance and a CPA degree. Bill Langdon, another member of the South Whidbey tax team, has a background in financial accounting with a prominent firm in Seattle. The third member of the team, Win Ewing, is a former mathematics teacher.

What motivates them to give so much time to the program? All said the same thing: "We love people, we understand how intimidating tax forms can be, and we want to help."

Enlarging on this theme, Van Patten cited some examples of being able to save taxpayers money.

"Many taxpayers don't realize they are eligible for earned income credit and can often get money back instead of paying," he said. "A couple last year were very happy when we showed them how to get a refund of about $400.

That makes the time we give worthwhile."

Dolly Mullen, another Friday customer at the Bayview Senior Center, waited for Bill Langdon, who has helped her for the last four years. She said he knows what to expect when she brings in her tax forms.

"Bill is familiar with my situation and the various schedules I need," she said. "This has saved me considerable money. I could never figure it out by myself. It is a wonderful service."

Vicki Staley, a staff member at the center, utilizes the service as well.

"I always use them to verify what I've put on my 1040 form. It takes care of that scary feeling that maybe I made a mistake."

Van Patten and Langdon have been providing assistance with taxes for almost 10 years. The other volunteers have at least five years of volunteering under their belts. They all place an emphasis on the confidentiality of their interviews and work.

The volunteers expect their workload to increase as they approach the last Friday before the federal income tax filing deadline. The last day of the volunteer service is April 12.

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