Students at VITA lab file taxes for free

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Ari Davis
A BYU student volunteer helps file Jerret Elton’s tax return for free. (Ari Davis)

Provo resident Jerret Elton files his taxes for free every year.

After discovering the BYU Volunteer Income Tax Assistance lab five years ago online. He scheduled an appointment and then went to the lab where certified BYU students helped him file his tax return. Now he recommends the service, saying there is no comparison.

“When it comes tax time, I always tell people to go down to BYU,” Elton said. “It’s free. It’s easy. And it’s super nice.”

Ryan Smith, one of two BYU Volunteer Income Tax Assistance lab site coordinators, said Elton is just one of many taxpayers from the community who return each year “like veterans almost, or loyal customers.”

“They come in year after year because they know this is the place they can get their taxes done,” Smith said.

The BYU Volunteer Income Tax Assistance lab filed 1,516 tax returns for a total of $2,141,835 in federal refunds last year according to its website.

More than 100 BYU students volunteer their time at the lab site to help file others’ tax returns for free each year.

“There’s nothing in comparison to the feeling you get when you are helping people do their taxes and they get a massive refund,” Smith said.

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance is a nationwide program generally sponsored by United Way, but BYU’s chapter of Beta Alpha Psi, the honor society for financial information students, runs the site at BYU.

The BYU site is the largest Volunteer Income Tax Assistance lab sponsored by any Beta Alpha Psi chapter according to BYU’s co-lab coordinators Smith and Tiffany Yeates. They also believe BYU’s lab is among the largest of all Volunteer Income Tax Assistance lab sites because of their ability to find student volunteers.

“It would be really hard to find a (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) lab site not sponsored by a college that would be as big or be able to get as much traffic as we do,” Smith said.

As of Feb. 18, the lab had 76 certified volunteers, according to the coordinators. They expect many more volunteers to earn their certifications soon.

The volunteers are certified through the IRS. They first attend training provided by the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance lab coordinators. Then volunteers must complete and pass a test provided by the IRS to demonstrate they are trained and qualified to file others’ taxes accurately.

Volunteers then commit to serve in the lab for at least two hours each week, but many serve longer hours. The coordinators said they added Saturday shifts this year to give more students the opportunity to serve in the lab.

Smith said many accounting students enter the accounting program knowing about Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and plan to volunteer because it is such a longstanding tradition at BYU.

Students volunteer to fulfill service requirements for Beta Alpha Psi, acquire practical experience and earn the natural rewards of service.

“The joy that comes from service is really why a lot of people are in here,” Smith said.

Yeates was a little frustrated with the difficult certification process when she first volunteered a few years ago, but she said the frustration left after she started helping people.

“I helped my first little family do their tax return, and I saw the benefits of what I had done — that I was actually really helping people who appreciated my help,” Yeates said.

The service is open to anyone who earns $54,000 or less per year. This includes both community members and students.

Smith and Yeates explained that because filing taxes with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance is free, it is a great alternative to a professional tax appointment or paid online programs.

They also recommend the service over free online programs or apps because they offer personal, face-to-face assistance and instruction. They said BYU volunteers make explaining tax returns one of their top priorities.

“One of the purposes we have in here is to help taxpayers know more about their tax returns,” Smith said.

The lab environment also provides the added benefit of multiple assistants. If a volunteer has questions or difficulties filing anyone’s tax returns, he or she can quickly turn to another volunteer.

“At least everyone in there knows how to help,” Elton said.

The site is located in room W139 of the N. Eldon Tanner Building and will operate through Saturday, March 26. Volunteers are there from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays; and from 9 a.m to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

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