Westminster Students Offer Free Tax Help

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FULTON - Westminster College accounting students are lending a hand to Callaway County residents struggling with filing income tax returns. The students are certified by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as tax return preparers and will offer their services every Monday free of charge until April 15, the deadline to file tax returns.

This is the second year in a row students are offering the free tax preparation service. According to assistant professor of accounting Elise Bartley, the free service is needed now more than ever. "The Central Missouri Community Action (CMCA) in Callaway County offered some preparation services," said Bartley. "They had budget cuts a couple years ago, and actually the year that we started they were going to have to stop preparing taxes. So it had been a service that had been offered in the past, but there was only one person to do it for the whole county. They weren't able to offer the scope of services that we can now having more abled bodies on the ground."

Bartley began the IRS sponsored volunteer income tax assistance (VITA) program as a way to incorporate service learning into her accounting class. "The corporate income tax class just seemed like a natural fit for community service. It offers students the opportunity to prepare taxes as practice and also offers a really valuable service to the community."

Bartley said it normally costs anywhere between $100 to $200 to have income tax returns prepared by professional accountants. "So it's a significant savings for them to come have us prepare their taxes for free. I hope that it's something we can continue to offer at Westminster, and that the people in Callaway County can come to depend on the services that are offered here."

To qualify for the free service, residents must have earned less than $51,000 per household last year. This income limitation applies to taxpayers filing as an individual or jointly. "Because the service is free, the idea is that we're going to try to help the people that need the help the most--the people that probably can't afford to go out and spend the money to have a tax preparer do the return," said Bartley.

Qualifying residents should bring the following documents to have their income tax return filed:

  • Photo identification
  • Social Security cards for themselves, their spouses and dependents
  • All W-2 forms
  • Any 1099 forms received
  • Student loan interest payment information
  • Form 1098 for tuition paid
  • Child care expense declarations
  • A personal check or routing and account number for direct deposit
  • If available, their 2011 tax return

This year, Bartley's team of accounting students doubled from four to eight. Since the students began volunteering on February 4, they have served about 40 people. In their first year participating in the VITA program, the students only served about 50. "My students get fantastic experience through this program," said Bartley. "It gives them job experience even though it's volunteering. It's more like the experience they would get working in a full-time job. They can apply all the things they've learned in class to a real world situation, which is the best kind of learning that can happen."

Accounting student Jeremy Siebert said the experience is paying off. "I've done it so many times now that it's getting pretty easy for me," said Siebert. "But I guess for a person who hasn't done one yet, it's probably a challenge."

Bartley said it's very important to file an income tax return. "Especially if you're on the lower earning income scale, you can get a lot of the taxes that you paid back," said Bartley. "If you don't file a return, then you can't get a refund."

The accounting students provide the tax return service every Monday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in room 121 of the Coulter Science Center on the Westminster College campus. The tax return service will not be available March 11 or April 1 when Westminster is closed for campus holidays. For more information on the service, call Elise Bartley at 573-592-5215 or e-mail her at elise.bartley@westminster-mo.edu.